Law on Assisted Suicide

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 7:20 pm, 10th March 2010

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Ms Hewitt on securing the debate. The law in this area arouses strong and deeply divided views-across the political divide-the public, the media and many Members of the House. In Parliament the debate has taken place mostly in the other place, and it is therefore good for the House of Commons to have an opportunity to contribute to it. However, we are clearly still a long way from reaching a consensus.

Under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, as amended by section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, it is an offence to do an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person with the intention to so encourage or assist. The Government believe that any change in the law is an issue of individual conscience, and is rightly a matter for Parliament rather than Government policy to decide. The Government therefore take a neutral view when others seek to change the law, which means that we, as the Government, should neither stand in the way of such a change nor actively pursue it.

The same applies to the law applying to the closely related issue of mercy killing, which has been highlighted by recent cases of which all Members will have learnt from the media. As we have observed this evening and in broader discussions, assisted suicide and mercy killing often form part of the same debate, but, while both raise difficult moral issues, there is an important distinction between them. Intentionally taking another person's life is murder, unless a partial defence applies to reduce the offence to manslaughter. Helping another person to take his or her own life is covered by the offence of encouraging or assisting suicide.

As my right hon. Friend said, the Law Commission made a recommendation in relation to mercy killing in its 2006 report "Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide", which constituted the first of two stages of a review of homicide law. The issue of mercy killing fell within the scope of the Law Commission's review, but only to the extent that it related to the grounds for reducing a more serious offence to a less serious offence of homicide, and it was considered in that context. The underlying ethical question of whether it should be legalised was outside the commission's terms of reference. The commission recommended that the Government undertake a public consultation on whether, and if so to what extent, the law should recognise either an offence of mercy killing or a partial defence of mercy killing. We said at the time that any change to the law in relation to mercy killing was an issue of conscience and one for Parliament to decide, and, as I have said, that remains our view.

Let me now address the law on assisting suicide. Whether there are any circumstances in which it should be legal to assist another person to die is also a highly controversial issue. It raises huge ethical questions, to which there are no easy answers. My postbag at the Ministry of Justice reflects the real concerns of members of the public about the issue, and the extent to which it polarises opinion. I receive many passionate letters on both sides of the debate, not only about the issues raised by my right hon. Friend but about the personal circumstances raised by my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer. Even if one accepts that the law should change, there is no consensus on where a line should be drawn or on what safeguards should be in place, and for whom.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West contends that terminally ill, mentally competent adults who are suffering at the end of their lives should have the choice of an assisted death, within safeguards. I am of course aware of opinion polls suggesting that there is strong public support for such a change in the law and I do not doubt the compassion that drives those who believe so strongly in that view. No one could fail to sympathise with those who are faced with the sort of difficult decisions that none of us would ever want to make, but even the most limited step in this area would fundamentally change the principle we have held to so far on the ethics of assisted suicide.

I am not saying it is a step we in Parliament and as a country should not take, nor do I want in any way to minimise the suffering individuals face and the wish of some of them to end their lives, but we should not underestimate the magnitude of any change that says that we can help people to kill themselves rather than merely helping them to withstand their suffering.

Proposals to change the law have been debated in another place on a number of occasions, but none of the private Members' Bills introduced there has progressed further than Second Reading despite the fact that the Bills would only have affected the terminally ill and were progressively narrower in scope. The issue was also looked at in great detail by a Select Committee from March 2004 to March 2005, but the Committee did not take a position either way on the central issue.

My right hon. Friend also contends that a change in the law is necessary to bring it into line with the practice of the Director of Public Prosecutions. As she said this evening, it is often reported that the Crown Prosecution Service has failed to prosecute more than 100 cases where people have been given assistance to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. However, in its judgment in the Purdy case, the Court of Appeal referred to evidence given by the CPS that, as far as it could ascertain, only eight such cases were ever referred to it and all but one failed to meet the level of evidence required for a prosecution.

Since that evidence was produced, I am told that one further case has been considered and not prosecuted on public interest grounds. So, there are not in fact a large number of cases in which the CPS has decided that there was sufficient evidence of an offence but decided not to prosecute. As hon. Members will know, following a 12-week public consultation on the interim policy issued last September, the CPS published at the end of last month a policy for prosecutors in respect of cases of assisted suicide. It sets out the factors that prosecutors will consider when deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute someone for encouraging or assisting suicide.

It is not the case that in publishing such a policy the DPP has in effect changed the law. As the policy makes clear, it is not for the director to change the law and nor can he give any prospective immunity from prosecution. The director himself has made this point strongly and with the utmost clarity. Neither is it the case that, in exercising his discretion in deciding whether to prosecute someone for assisting suicide, the director is doing anything now that he was not doing before the policy for prosecutors was published. Under section 2(4) of the Suicide Act 1961, there has always been a requirement for the director's consent to a prosecution for a section 2 offence. In exercising that discretion, he has always had to weigh up the public interest factors for and against prosecution on the facts of individual cases.

Many of those who oppose any change in the law are concerned that it would weaken the protection that the law affords the most vulnerable people in society. They believe that no safeguards, however stringent, could ever eliminate the possibility that a vulnerable person might feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to end their life.