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Suicide Act 1961: Prosecutions

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 23 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether the threat of prosecutions under the Suicide Act 1961 is causing suffering to mentally competent, terminally ill people at the end of their lives.

My Lords, the Government recognise the challenges faced by those suffering from a terminal illness, and the desire of some to have choice over how to end their lives without fear of prosecution of themselves or those close to them. In a recent case, the High Court found that Parliament’s decision not to change the current law strikes a fair balance between the interests of the wider community and those of people who are terminally ill and wish to be helped to die.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Ann Whaley recently took her husband, Geoff, to Dignitas for a peaceful death. Geoff suffered from motor neurone disease and faced the complete loss of any movement and the ability to speak, swallow, eat, drink or breathe without a ventilator. In answer to a question from Ann, Lord Sumption, our Reith lecturer, said that the assisted dying law—that is, the prohibition of assisted dying—should remain but that compassionate families should break the law. I find that remarkable. If a former Supreme Court judge is telling people to break the law, does that not indicate that the law itself is broken and should be reformed? What plans do the Government have to prepare for a change in this broken law so that terminally ill people who suffer unbearably—there are a number of them—and have only six months to live can have a peaceful death?

My Lords, the Government do not plan to change the law at this time. Lord Sumption is a distinguished author and retired judge, of course. In his retirement and in delivering his Reith lecture a few days ago, he is entitled to express his personal opinions on morality and the law. I remind noble Lords that, while sitting as a Justice of the Supreme Court in the case of Nicklinson and Lamb in 2014, he said that,

“there is a diversity of opinion about the degree of risk involved in relaxing or qualifying the ban on assisted suicide, but not about its existence. The risk exists and no one appears to regard it as insignificant. There is a reputable body of experienced opinion which regards it as high”.

My Lords, how much longer can we say to people that the only legal thing they can do is take the lonely journey to Switzerland? Surely we as a society can show more compassion to people than that. Can the Minister confirm that all surveys show that the majority of people in this country want a change in the law?

My Lords, I am not in a position to comment on all surveys because that may embrace ones of which we are not aware. The Government have always taken the view that this is a matter of individual conscience and for Parliament to decide, rather than one of government policy.

My Lords, noble Lords will remember that I chaired a committee of the House on this issue many years ago. Is it possible to take account of the suffering that may be experienced by vulnerable people, surrounded in their weakness by relatives whose interests may not be completely in the best interests of the vulnerable person? That is a serious risk to be taken into account. On the other hand, the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued very clear guidelines on these matters, in accordance with a requirement from what was then the Supreme Court, in his jurisdiction.

The noble and learned Lord is entirely right. The Director of Public Prosecutions has issued very clear guidelines, which address not only the evidential test but the public interest test that arises in such a complex and difficult area. That is why we see the need for a careful and balanced approach to what is, at the end of the day, an issue of conscience.

My Lords, many families do not have access to Dignitas. Indeed, before it was available, a family friend of ours waited until his wife was away for two days before killing himself because he was very worried that the police might take action. The DPP guidance states:

“A prosecution is less likely if the person made a voluntary, informed decision to end their life, and if the assister was wholly motivated by compassion”.

However, it then lists a string of reasons why a prosecution may be more likely. Despite the fact that Ann Whaley clearly fell into that first category, she was immediately interviewed under caution by police. The distress that caused was phenomenal. On Sunday, the Justice Secretary said in the Sunday Express:

“Personally I am in favour of reform in this area, and sympathise with calls to allow individuals choice”.

When will the Ministry of Justice change the guidance?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice expressed his personal views on this issue of conscience, but it is not a matter of government policy. With regard to the involvement of the police in cases where a matter is reported to them, that is not prompted simply by Section 2 of the Suicide Act, because if the police receive a report that someone’s life is going to be terminated they would in any event investigate lest it be a case of murder or manslaughter.

My Lords, in a recent Royal College of Physicians survey just over 80% of palliative care doctors opposed the assisted suicide law reforms. The Secretary of State for Justice is committed to meeting organisations that support changes. Can the Minister assure this House that the views of those opposing such reforms, out of due concern for vulnerable patients placed at risk of abuse, have been and will be equally considered?

I can give the right reverend Prelate that assurance. Indeed, we have had recent contact with some organisations representing the very parties to which he refers. They will be given an equal opportunity to express their views on this difficult matter.

My Lords, do the Government accept the evidence from jurisdictions that have changed the law? A recent paper from Holland shows that a majority of Dutch physicians feel pressure when dealing with requests for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, and their confidential survey shows a mismatch of many thousands more between euthanasias and assisted suicides and the reported figures. In Belgium there are estimates that up to 50% may not be reported. It is on the basis of the danger to those who can be pressurised that many people feel that a change in the law is too dangerous to contemplate.

The noble Baroness makes a very clear point with reference to the findings in Holland and Belgium. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians have come out with diverse views on this issue, which raises challenges for the medical profession in general.