Barry Gardiner

Working Hard for Brent North

Assisted Dying Bill

On 11th September 2015 the House of Commons debated the Assisted Dying Bill which would see the law changed with respect to allowing those who wish to end their lives to and whether those that help them in doing so would be subject to criminal prosecution. Many of Mr Gardiner's constituents had very strong views both for and against the Bill and Mr Gardiner has set out his position below:

The Assisted Dying Bill which was debated in the House of Commons on 11th September 2015. Before the debate I was genuinely unsure about which way I should vote as I had received impassioned and persuasive letters from so many people on both sides of this complex issue. I wanted to be able to share with you in my response, not only how I voted but precisely why I voted as I did. I wanted you to be able to see that I had very carefully weighed up the arguments and listened to the debate before reaching a conclusion. Inevitably, I am afraid it has taken me some time to set this down in a letter to you.

I was present in the chamber for the entire debate which I thought one of the finest examples of the House of Commons presenting all aspects of a very complicated and sensitive issue and genuinely giving voice to the different concerns that the public have about assisted suicide.

One of the most informative speeches on the day was that of my colleague Sir Keir Starmer who used to be the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) but is now the MP for Holborn & St Pancras. He set out the basis of the guidelines he published as DPP in February 2010 explaining the factors that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would consider before determining whether it would be in the public interest to pursue a prosecution for assisting suicide on a case by case basis. 

Crucially that guidance provided greater clarity for the public and emphasised that it remains murder or manslaughter for a person to commit an act that ends the life of another, even if the person does so on the basis that he or she is complying with the wishes of the other person concerned; nonetheless the CPS will consider that it would not normally be considered to be in the public interest to prosecute a loved one or family member who is acting compassionately and in accordance with the settled wish of the dying person. The guidance also stresses though that each case should be considered on its own facts and merits.

Keir made clear to the House that whilst the guidelines he had established were helpful he had now come to regard them as suffering from two important limitations. These were:

  1. That those who have the means and physical capacity to travel to Switzerland are able to avail themselves of professional assistance in committing suicide whilst those without such means cannot. This he regards as unjust.
  2. That those who might be pressurised to take their own lives by those who did not have their best interests at heart, were better served by a system that required a judge or independent assessor to determine in advance that the individual did indeed have a voluntary and settled desire to end their life, rather than having an investigation after the fact of their death when the person themselves could not be questioned.

These are important and powerful considerations and they had persuaded a respected colleague who had been closely involved with many cases of assisted suicide, to change his own legal mind.

However, I disagreed with him for the following reasons:

  1. The argument about having the means and capacity to travel to Switzerland fails in my view. We are legislating for what should happen in the UK. It is of course always the case that anyone with the means and capacity to travel to another jurisdiction can avail themselves of all sorts of things that may be prohibited in the UK; that can never be an argument in my view for having those things made legal in the UK. We must determine our own laws. We criminalise certain drugs that other regimes permit, we do not allow sexual relationships between adults and those under 16 years of age. The fact that other jurisdictions do allow these practices does not mean that anyone without the means or capacity to travel to those countries is being treated unjustly by the law in the UK.
  2. The argument about people being better protected from those who would push them to suicide, by a prior investigation rather than one after the fact, is in my view correct in itself. I am conscious that the ability to question the terminally ill person before the event would indeed bring greater clarity over the question of the settled will of the person, but it fails to consider what for me is a stronger countervailing argument. 

Many arguing for this legislation spoke of how a change in the law would provide much needed choice to people who currently felt they had none. I accept that this is true but I believe that such choice brings with it not only new freedoms but also new constraints and pressures. The very fact that the law were to permit assisted suicide, means that for very many people who might never now consider ending their lives, that choice would now become available as a real option. Many elderly people might worry that they were a burden on their loved ones and consider whether they 'ought to exercise their new found choice'. For the most part, it is not that their family might put that pressure upon them that concerns me, it is that they might put that pressure upon themselves.  

This point was put in the debate most movingly by my colleague Lyn Brown and also by Dr. Philippa Whitford, the SNP Member for Central Ayrshire who has spent most of her life as a practising breast surgeon and who, in her own words has "been involved in the journey to death of many patients". I will attach with this letter copies of their speeches as well as Keir Starmer's so that you can read them for yourself.

Many other significant points were made in the debate. I think of Nadine Dorries the Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire who pointed out that many of the cases cited as a reason why this legislation was necessary dealt with diseases such as locked in syndrome which were in fact not covered by the bill as they are not terminal illnesses. Perhaps the most significant issue that emerged clearly from these speeches and many others was the vital importance of palliative care and the need for the government to do much more to ensure that everyone is able to approach the end of life with real support in place.

I hope that you will understand the reasons why I voted against the Bill. These are questions where law, morality and social attitudes to death interact with ideas of freedom of choice and the sanctity of life to raise some of the most profound questions about our humanity and how we live together. I know that my decisions will not be shared by all my constituents who have like you taken the time to write to me. I believe that on this occasion parliament was able to show that we treated both sides of the debate with genuine respect and trust that whatever your own view you will feel that I have properly explained mine.

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published this page in What I Stand for 2015-10-20 15:14:20 +0100

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