On 4 July 2022 assisted dying was considered in a Westminster Hall debate; this took place as a consequence of the e-petition 604383: Legalise assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. This petition closed on 30 June 2022, having been open for 6 months, during which time it attracted 1,805 signatures. The government response was given by the Ministry of Justice on 3 February 2022:
The Government’s position is that any change to the law in this area is a matter for Parliament and an issue of conscience for individual parliamentarians rather than one for Government policy.
Westminster Hall debate
Before calling Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower, Labour) to move the motion, the Chair, Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet, Conservative) made a short statement about sub judice. There are ongoing cases relating to the subject of the debate, which, for the sub judice resolution, have not been waived. “All Members must refrain from making reference to any active court cases. The Chair, whether it is me or my successor in the Chair, will call you immediately to order should you seek to raise any individual case. I have to make that point very strongly and clearly”.
Humanists UK reported that a cross-party group of MPs emphasised the need for a public inquiry on assisted dying. This group included Lucy Allan, a member of the Health & Social Care Committee, and Matt Hancock, former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. There were contributions from the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice Chair Rachel Hopkins MP, the APPHG Vice Chair, Ruth Cadbury MP, and APPHG Secretary Aaron Bell MP.
Concluding the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (James Cartlidge) said:
“…This debate is a welcome opportunity for the House to debate, for the first time in this new Session, an issue of such profound sensitivity and importance. We all experience the death of people we care about and, wherever one stands on the underlying issue, we must surely all want dignity and compassion for those in their final phase of life.
Before turning to the Government position and contributions from colleagues, I want to start with a note on the language, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). Some people draw a distinction between assisted dying, which they see as allowing dying people to have a choice over the manner and timing of their imminent death, and assisted suicide, which they see as helping people who are not dying to choose death over life. To be clear, the criminal law currently makes no such distinction; under section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, the offence is “encouraging or assisting” suicide, and my use of the term “suicide” reflects that. It does not indicate prejudice either way, and it is not an indication of the Government taking one side over the other.
The Government’s view remains that any relaxation of the law in this area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide. To be clear, that does not mean that the Government do not care about the issue at hand—far from it. It means that the ultimate decision on whether to change the law is for Parliament to decide, in the tradition of previous matters of conscience that have come before the House.
While I note the petition’s call for the Government to bring forward legislation to allow assisted dying for adults who are terminally ill and have mental capacity, our neutral stance means that such a change would have to be made via private Members’ legislation. If, at a future date, it became the clearly expressed will of Parliament to amend or change the criminal law so as to enable some form of assisted dying, the Government would of course undertake the role of ensuring that the relevant legislation was delivered as effectively as possible…”
“…I can confirm that NHS England is developing an ambitious programme focused on transformational approaches for the next five years. The programme will build on the work of the palliative and end-of-life care strategic clinical networks, which sit across the seven regional footprints. The Government recognise that high-quality palliative and end-of-life care should include the opportunity for individuals to discuss their wishes and preferences so that they can be taken fully into account in the provision of their future care—also known as advance care planning…
“…Turning to some of the core issues raised today, a number of colleagues referred to what is happening in other jurisdictions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others made the point that change is happening in many other jurisdictions and argued that we should be reflecting that. Equally, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) made the point that some evidence from those jurisdictions may be negative. I think she referred to the experience of the medical profession in Canada. Clearly, whatever we do and however we move forward, we should always be cognisant of what is happening in countries and jurisdictions where the law has changed.
Perhaps the key point of principle here, which is where this becomes a matter of conscience, is choice—choice versus the risk, shall we say, of abuse, and the need for safeguards and so on…
On the position of the public, polling does seem to have shifted. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk and the hon. Member for Gower both referred to what is happening with the opinion polls. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) made the point that a poll is not an argument and we are, after all, a representative democracy. Ultimately, it will be for this House, through a private Member’s Bill or another mechanism, to make the change.
…There was much talk of the slippery slope from the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and others. I just say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that if a doctor were injecting drugs with the aim of ending life, that would not be assisted suicide or assisted dying; that would be murder under common law...”
On the afternoon of Sunday 10 July, the General Synod of the Church of England will debate a Private Members’ Motion raised by Dr Simon Eyre (Chichester) on Assisted Suicide. Relevant documents are GS2266A and GS 2266B. Pertinent to the debate at General Synod are:
The statement of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, James Cartlidge that in law, there is no difference between “assisted suicide” and “assisted dying”;
- The sub judice caution by the Chair.
The Crown Prosecution Service publishes annual data on prosecutions related to assisted suicide, the latest of which were updated as of 31 March 2022. These indicate that from 1 April 2009 up to 31 March 2022, there have been 174 cases referred to the CPS by the police that have been recorded as assisted suicide. Of these 174 cases, 115 were not proceeded with by the CPS and 33 cases were withdrawn by the police.
As at 31 March 2022, there were eight ongoing cases. Four cases of encouraging or assisting suicide have been successfully prosecuted. One case of assisted suicide was charged and acquitted after trial in May 2015 and eight cases were referred onwards for prosecution for homicide or other serious crime.