Assisted Suicide: 27th March 2012

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that there are some people who, by virtue of their affliction, illness or disease, do not have the choice of ending their lives because they physically cannot do anything for themselves? Are not those people a very important consideration in this debate?
Jim Fitzpatrick
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. I am sure all Members in the Chamber will have read the briefings by a variety of organisations and testimony from family members who have been worried even about filling in the forms to send their loved ones to Dignitas, if they could afford it. They have been worried about whether that constitutes illegality which could lead to their being prosecuted.

The Debbie Purdy case in 2009 helped us get here today. As the hon. Member for Croydon South mentioned, we owe her and her family a great debt. She did not want her husband prosecuted for helping her along the lines that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has just mentioned, and I do not believe most opponents of assisted dying in any form want loved ones prosecuted for a one-off, compassionately motivated act. I believe and hope that the DPP guidance will bring common sense to bear.

I personally believe that we need a change in the law to allow assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in specific circumstances, so I support amendment (a). Let me personalise the matter. Most colleagues know that I was in the London fire brigade before being elected here. Every firefighter from the 1970s and before, but not after the early 1980s, used asbestos equipment. Asbestos was and is known for its heat-resistant properties, but it has been lethal for many thousands of people. Tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, in other industries and businesses have also been exposed to it.

Asbestosis and mesothelioma cause very unpleasant deaths. They cause an end that is nasty, painful and distressing not only for the victim but for their loved ​ones and the medical staff who have to treat them. I have been with colleagues and families who have been through that. The issue, therefore, is this: what kind of end?

The DPP’s policy provides much-needed clarity and, as many colleagues have said, sensibly distinguishes between malicious and compassionate assistance. It does not give immunity. The public interest criteria safeguard the public interest and provide to some degree that there should be a right to choose. Therefore, I support the motion and amendment (a), as well as amendment (b), because the latter is not at all in conflict. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, most people who go into decent palliative care would choose to extend their life for as long as possible, but not everyone. Those who do not want to stay to the bitter end, and who think that they have a better option for a more dignified end, should have the right to choose.

Anna Soubry
Would my hon. Friend go as far as some who would argue that it is not right or fair for Debbie to have to travel somewhere else to die with dignity as she wishes to do? Does he agree that in due course our law could change so that she could die at home rather than having to travel to some clinic abroad?

Zac Goldsmith
I do agree, and I shall say more about that in a few moments. In fact, Debbie herself said at the time that had she lost her case, she would have booked into Dignitas in 2009. Her letter concludes:

“I know of situations where these guidelines have, even without the certainty of law, delayed the timing of an assisted death and made a death less frightening and lonely. For my part, the guidelines have allowed my life to be longer and happier. The Lords saved my life.”

She says that because the Lords initiated this process.

The DPP policy is clearly a step forward, as it provides some clarity. I am not convinced it provides sufficient clarity, however. For instance, only a minority of GPs feel that there is enough guidance for doctors on what to do if a patient asks for help to die. We also need to ask if it is right that mentally competent adults should have to travel abroad to receive medical assistance to die, and we must assess whether it is right that the law can brand someone a criminal for helping their loved one, even while the same law gives them a sympathetic nod and a wink.

The motion does not address these concerns. Neither does amendment (a), for which, in truth, I have yet to hear any compelling arguments. I hope we will debate the broader issues in due course. For now, however, the policy provides greater clarity on the application of the law than was ever previously available, and must therefore be welcome.

Sir Peter Bottomley
I will not give way again. It would have been better, if we had more time, if someone had read out all 16 of the DPP’s public interest factors tending in favour of prosecution, and the six public interest factors tending against prosecution, which, interestingly, start at nought rather than one. It is worth getting those into people’s minds. I hope that the newspapers will report those factors, if they report any part of the debate.

I have probably been with as many dying people as others. I have been in the House for 36 years, there are about four people a year with whom I spend a lot of time in my constituency, and I have had family experiences, too. I have probably seen more dead people than anyone, because of various things that I have been witness to in my life. Death is not something to be worried about; pain is, and misery is. I shall not even think of contradicting the things that many hon. Friends and Opposition Members have said, but on the DPP’s role, I point out that I back what Ken Macdonald said in 2004, when he issued a nine-point statement of independence. One of the points was as follows:

“The people of this country want a prosecution service that is confident, strong and independent. Casework decisions taken with fairness, impartiality and integrity will deliver justice for victims, witnesses, defendants and the public. Casework decisions that, for whatever reason, lack these characteristics risk miscarriages of justice. They undermine that confidence in the rule of law, which underpins our democratic society.”

If we had a statutory declaration of the principles that we have all accepted, and the DPP brought up some other issue that he wanted to bring in, it would require a ​statutory change. What is the point of that? If the DPP thought one of his current points was too strong and should be weakened, would he have to come to Parliament again? That is the argument against even considering whether the Government should consider consultation.

The last area I wish to examine relates to the fact that too many suicides take place in this country. Whether we ought to have an extra 20 or 30 instead of having people going abroad is one issue, but multiplying the number of assisted suicides by 100 relates to a completely different debate. What sort of number would there be then? What sort of pressures would people feel if they thought that they were being awkward or untidy, or they were experiencing pain they did not want to experience? Pain is a part of life. It is experienced by women giving birth—

Anna Soubry
He has obviously not been through it!

Sir Peter Bottomley
Well, I am told that it is. It is experienced by many of us doing things, whether we are talking about physical pain or mental pain. People are called on to do things as parents or as children which are awful but have to be survived. I hope that the result of this debate is that we let more people survive, and we keep these guidelines as they are. They are accepted by us all.

Anna Soubry
A constituent of mine has written to me at length and with great feeling on this subject. He is a bright, intelligent man at the end of his life who might fall into some unfortunate condition. He therefore has every ability to make a decision, as a grown-up person, about how he wants to end his life. Why should he not have that right?

Jacob Rees-Mogg
We have to legislate for everybody, not just for my hon. Friend’s most able constituents. We have to legislate for the weak and vulnerable, and for those who have nobody to defend them. Yes, of course we can all cite examples of highly intelligent, capable people who would be able, for example, to resist pressure from family members who might be after an inheritance, but what about those who feel that they have become a burden to society? My greatest concern for the elderly and the frail is that, although they might be enjoying their lives, they might feel that they have become a burden and therefore selflessly propose that their own end should be hastened. That is my concern about the term “voluntary”.

I am also concerned about the terms “clear” and “settled”. People might clearly settle something in their youth, then change their mind as the time gets closer. We read the saddest cases in the newspapers of people who have taken overdoses of paracetamol, then regretted their action and decided that they want to live. As the moment comes closer, how settled is that decision that was taken at an earlier stage?

I am also concerned about the word “informed”, Mr Speaker. Informed by whom? Are you going to set up a committee, perhaps with the two of us, to advise on the different options available to people who are at a late and vulnerable stage of their lives? Or will they in fact receive that advice from people who favour a particular ​course of action? How will we decide whether that information is fair, reasonable, and sufficient to allow them to make a choice that will protect their friends or family from a prosecution for assisting in their suicide?

The guidelines also state that a prosecution is less likely when a suspect is “wholly motivated by compassion”. Of course the family and the spouses involved should be motivated by compassion, but who in this House clearly knows their own motivations when they do particular things? Most motivations are mixed in a number of ways.