Defeat of the Assisted Dying Bill at Second reading
Rob Marris’ Private Member’s Bill – the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill – was presented to Parliament through the ballot procedure on 24 June 2015 and given its second reading in the House of Commons on Friday 11 September. The House of Commons Library had published a comprehensive 49-page Briefing Paper for MPs covering: the Suicide Act 1961; case law on assisted suicide; the DPP’s policy for prosecuting cases of assisted suicide; previous attempts to change the law; the Assisted Dying Bill; and the various stakeholders. A substantial amount of further material had been produced by those on both sides of the argument. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy suggested that the debate would be “a classic private members’ bill tactical battle, with opponents seeking to talk the bill out, and supporters hoping to muster enough MPs to force a vote and get the bill through to detailed scrutiny in committee.” Whilst this was the first real test of the 2015 Commons on this kind of free vote issue, more importantly it was the first occasion upon which the House of Commons had the opportunity to vote on the issue since 1997, [HC Hansard, 10 Dec 1997 : Col 1025].
The debate was scheduled from 09:30, but before it could commence, Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con) moved a motion that the House sit in private, a move which some commentators described as “a routine time-wasting tactic almost always introduced at the start of a controversial private member’s debate”. After the motion was defeated 239 votes to 1, the deputy speaker, Natascha Engel, announced that that an unprecedented number of MPs had asked to speak to speak in the debate.
Unusually for debates on private members’ bills, MPs were asked to restrict their speeches to five minutes, although some including Mrs Caroline Spelman significantly exceeded this limit, [Col 665]. However, an exception was made for Sir Keir Starmer, (Lab. Hoborn and St Pancras), in view of his role as DPP in drawing up guidelines for relatives intended to clarify in what circumstances people would and would not be prosecuted for assisting people to kill someone who wanted to die, [Col 671]. He stated that the guidelines have applied for five years and as DPP, he oversaw 80 cases covered by them; in 79, he decided there should be no prosecution. In support of the Bill, he stated that problem with the current law is the inconsistency that amateur assistance from relatives is now allowed in practice, but professional assistance from a doctor is not allowed.
However, Robert Flello, (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab), noted subsequently [Col 698] that the cases cited by Keir Starmer would not be covered by the proposed Bill, and the practice in Oregon was for the drugs to be issued to the people wishing to take them, but it was amateurs who are around when they are administered. He further described the procedures in Oregon and the Netherlands, dispelling the notion held by more than half the people polled that assisted suicide involved no pain or discomfort.
Contributors to the debate brought both personal perspectives as well as the views of their constituents, in addition to their views on the practical implications of the Bill. Reflecting the editorial in Friday’s Guardian, Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, pointed out [Col 695] that if the UK mirrored the US state of Oregon’s rate of assisted deaths, there would 1500 assisted deaths per year in the UK. The editorial stated:
“The safeguards in the Marris bill are so stringent that it is difficult to believe they could form the basis of a workable national system. Some 500,000 people die in England and Wales every year – 15 times as many as in Oregon. If the same proportion of them choose assisted dying as have recently done so in Oregon, there could be several thousand cases a year before high court judges; several thousand extra interviews on a literal matter of life and death, each to be conducted by two psychiatrists at a time when NHS appointments are supposed to last 10 minutes. It’s hard to see it working.”
Other contributions on both sides of the debate are reviewed in the Church Times and elsewhere.
Shortly after 2.00 pm the Assisted Dying Bill was put to the votes and its second reading was defeated by 330 votes to 118 – a majority of 212. The corrected version of the proceedings is reported in Hansard, [11 Sep 2015 Vol 599(42) Col 653]
Some initial reactions to the vote
The Church of England has issued the following statement:
“Statement following vote on Assisted Dying Bill
11 September 2015
James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, and lead bishop for the Church of England on health care issues, said: “We are heartened that MPs have decided not to change the law on assisted suicide.
‘We believe that the proposals contained in the Assisted Dying Bill would have exposed already vulnerable people to increased risk. The vote in the House of Commons sends a strong signal that the right approach towards supporting the terminally ill is to offer compassion and support through better palliative care. We believe that all of us need to redouble our efforts on that front.’”
The British Humanist Association commented: With MPs voting against assisted dying, the fight must now turn back to the courts
“BHA Director of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal commented, ‘80% of the public support a change in the law to legalise assisted dying, but it is clear that Parliament still has some way to go before it reflects this fact. In the meantime, countless individuals are needlessly suffering, or facing the prospect of travelling to Switzerland or having their loved ones illegally end their lives.
‘Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that while it is willing to consider whether the lack of a right to die breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, it thought that Parliament should first have the opportunity to legislate on the matter. Today Parliament has declined to do so, and so the fight on assisted dying must now return to the courts. We will continue to campaign in favour of assisted dying for the terminally ill and incurably suffering, as this is one of the most pressing ethical issues of our day.’”
Further comments on the outcome of the debate have been summarized by Anglican Mainstream.
In our post Has assisted suicide really moved a significant step closer? following the first reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2013-14 which received its first reading on 15 May 2013, but for which no date has been set for second reading, we suggested that
“[a]s to the possible of success of [a future] Assisted Suicide Bill, this will be strongly lobbied by both those for and against its introduction, but as has been commented elsewhere, the issue is unlikely to go away.”
Despite Friday’s significant defeat of Rob Marris’ Private Member’s Bill, we believe that there will be continued pressure for the introduction of measures to legalize assisted suicide.