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Assisted Suicide

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have issued guidelines as to whether those who assist a family member to end their lives in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland can expect to be prosecuted.

My Lords, the Crown Prosecution Service published a policy in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide in February 2010. This sets out factors that may be relevant in deciding whether prosecution for assisting suicide is in the public interest.

As ever, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. This morning the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, said that the current law may be incompatible with human rights law, and that it might very well rule on this. It also said that it is our duty in Parliament to decide these issues. It put the onus back on us to decide. We will have that opportunity in a few weeks’ time with the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. There are reports, which I hope I have misheard, that there may be an attempt to stifle discussion of these very important matters by voting the Bill down at Second Reading. Does my noble and learned friend agree that it would be inappropriate—and, indeed, highly irresponsible—to cut off debate on such a sensitive issue, given the passions on both sides about this hugely important question?

My Lords, I am certainly aware of the judgment passed down by the Supreme Court this morning. In a preliminary consideration of it I agree with my noble friend that it indicated that it is a matter that Parliament ought to consider. The Government will take a collective view on the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to respond to that debate. It is fair to say that historically it has been a matter of individual conscience, which the Prime Minister confirmed in April this year. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me from this Dispatch Box to indicate what noble Lords should or should not do on 18 July. I fully expect, however, that on a complex issue that raises passions on both sides—which I very much respect—your Lordships, in traditional manner, will give proper consideration to a range of arguments including, no doubt, the judgment passed down by the justices of the Supreme Court.

My Lords, if the Government are going to take a collective view, how does that relate to individual responsibility on a matter of conscience? Surely everyone—members of the Government included —should be entitled to have an individual view on a matter of conscience such as this, and not to be bullied by the Government Front Bench.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. The Government will take a collective view which could of course be neutral. I indicated—I hope I can make it clear—that historically that has been the position on a matter of individual conscience. The Prime Minister confirmed this position as recently as April of this year. It is appropriate that Parliament should take a lead in such debates.

My Lords, can the Minister say, with regard to the 108 British people I am aware of who have travelled to Dignitas, how many family members or friends have been prosecuted?

My Lords, I do not have that specific figure. However, records published by the Crown Prosecution Service show that from 1 April 2009 up until 13 February this year, 91 cases were referred to the CPS by the police that have been recorded as assisted suicide or euthanasia. Of these 91 cases, 65 were not proceeded with by the CPS; 13 were withdrawn by the police; and there are currently eight ongoing cases. One case of assisted attempted suicide was successfully prosecuted and four cases have been subject to prosecution for murder or serious assault.

My Lords, are not the Government embarrassed, if not ashamed, by the fact that so many terminally ill people feel forced to go to Switzerland to die when, if the law was changed, they could die in their own homes with their family around them and a qualified doctor in assistance?

My Lords, these are matters properly for Parliament to decide. Indeed, it is fair to note that the current law which amended the Suicide Act 1961 is contained in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. So Parliament has addressed this issue recently and will undoubtedly have an opportunity to consider these matters further when it comes to debate the Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the principle of patient autonomy is now at the centre of medical decisions throughout our lives until the very end when that right to one’s autonomy is withdrawn? I understand that the Minister cannot take a view on one or other side of the argument, but do the Government and the Minister accept that it is of the utmost importance that the Second Reading is allowed in order to satisfy the 75% to 80% of the public who support the Bill—and, indeed, the wishes of the courts?

My Lords, I very much expect that there will be a debate. I responded to a profound debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, two years ago. Albeit the speakers were limited to one minute, there were concise and impressive arguments on both sides and I hope that the House will have an opportunity to hear these arguments again.

My Lords, following the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, in view of the Supreme Court judgment this morning, does he agree that one of the issues we debated at the time he referred to—that there should be much greater clarity about the prosecution policy for healthcare professionals—should now be looked at again? One of the inhibiting problems in this area is the sense that healthcare professionals who may be able to give proper and sensitive help to people in this position are inhibited from doing so.

My Lords, it is important to make a distinction between clarifying the policy and changing the law. The role of the Director of Public Prosecutions is not to change the law—that is a matter for Parliament. However, the Supreme Court encouraged the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider the policy. They did not think that she should be required to review it but offered her encouragement to do so. Obviously, as it has been less than six hours since the judgment was delivered, I am not sure what the Director of Public Prosecutions will do. However, I fully expect that she will want to give careful consideration to what the justices said.

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that Keir Starmer, who was the DPP until just last year, told the Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that,

“the law works well in practice”?

In the light of that, does my noble and learned friend agree that there is nothing unusual about the way the law on assisted suicide works? We expect the law to be maintained in its integrity in order to protect all of us and for exceptional cases to be dealt with exceptionally.

My Lords, I do recall what the previous Director of Public Prosecutions said to the Commission on Assisted Dying; I think I referred to it when I responded to the debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. The important point is that there is a code which sets out the evidential test which has to be met first and foremost, and then the public interest test. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, noted in the Purdy case, there will always be discretion for the Director of Public Prosecutions. Every case is different and it is important that individual cases are looked at, having proper regard to the individual circumstances.