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 shall discuss the royal commission in a moment. Other possible assisted suicide incidences were covered in exactly the same way by the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to the decision on whether to prosecute. The Government remain neutral on that and it will remain a matter for Parliament.

Let me return to the factors that the Crown Prosecution Service take into account when deciding whether to prosecute. One factor in the interim policy was whether the victim had a terminal illness, a severe, incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery. During the consultation on the CPS policy, that issue was one of those most commented on. Many respondents to the public consultation felt that including that factor gave the impression that the lives of people who are affected in those ways were less valued in the interim policy. Although the CPS did not accept some of the arguments that were made, it recognised that any factor that might suggest that the act of encouraging or assisting the suicide of someone who was suffering in such a way was somehow less serious, simply by virtue of the victim's physical condition, was inappropriate for inclusion in the final policy and so that factor was removed. The final policy is more focused on the motives of the suspect rather than on the characteristics of the person who committed or attempted to commit suicide. There is a distinction to be made between the law and prosecution policy, but the level of public concern about the inclusion of that factor in the interim policy is indicative of the concern that might be felt about any proposal to change the law.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West, and others in another place, have suggested that there should be a royal commission or other independent investigation to assist Parliament in considering this issue. As she has said, this matter was debated in the other place as recently as 3 February, when my ministerial colleague, Lord Bach, responded for the Government. Hon. Members might want to read the Official Report of that full debate on these difficult issues. Time does not permit me to go into exactly what was said, but holding an independent inquiry on the issue is not as straightforward as it might seem. Neither can there be any certainty that such an inquiry would reach consensus. We cannot reach consensus in this House or in another place because there are such differing views across parties and public opinion, so I wonder why anyone would believe that a royal commission or any other independent inquiry could come to a settled view on this incredibly difficult matter. I understand my right hon. Friend's frustrations but I cannot give any commitment to establish a commission or other independent inquiry.

The legal, administrative, practical and resource implications of making any change to the law in this highly controversial area are considerable. We cannot do justice to this issue in this short time, and it cannot be resolved in the short time remaining in this Parliament, but I have no doubt that the debate will continue in one form or another in the next Parliament. In the mean time, I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their valuable contributions to this incredibly important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.