Assisted Dying

Part of Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 4:06 pm, 4th July 2019

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate; I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the time, and congratulate Nick Boles and Norman Lamb on securing it. I am also pleased to follow Christine Jardine.

My starting point is the last debate on this matter on 11 September 2015—Second Reading of the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill, which was sponsored by the former Member for Wolverhampton South West, Rob Marris, and was moved in the other place by the noble Lord Falconer. I do not often quote myself, but I am going to do so in this case. In fact, I think this is the first time that I have ever quoted me. I said on that occasion:

“There are three key issues here…it is about having the right to choose;
secondly, it is about the need to protect the vulnerable against…pressure…thirdly, it is about treating every citizen with the same degree of respect and dignity…On the right to choose, this—I should declare an interest—is personal.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2015;
Vol. 599, c. 666.]

As many colleagues know, before coming to this place I was a firefighter in the London fire brigade for 23 years, during which time I worked with asbestos. Its heat-resistant properties meant that the fire service used it for all manner of things. For example, we had asbestos gloves and hoods.

I do not know how many people have seen the terminal stages of those with asbestosis or mesothelioma. It is not pretty. It is not as bad as some of the deaths we have heard about—my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield spoke about his dad and we have heard about people with motor neurone disease—but it is not pretty. If that is what lies in store for me, I want the right to choose. I want the right to choose for myself and for everyone faced with that kind of situation, and I challenge colleagues who would deny me or anybody else the right to a dignified end.

Like most people, I want to die in my own home with my own family, and in as much comfort and as little pain as possible. Earlier, I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford regarding the references he made to Oregon. One statistic I have not heard quoted in the debate so far is that one third of patients who request assisted dying and meet the eligibility criteria in Oregon do not take the life-ending medication; rather, they want it as an insurance policy. Many actually die of their underlying condition—in some cases outliving their prognosis and not taking the medication because they want to live for as long as they can without suffering.

If I was to be denied the right to choose, I could afford to jet off to Switzerland—this point has been raised by several times Conservative Members—because I have the money, the savings and the pension. However, how many of my constituents in Poplar and Limehouse could afford to do that? Not many, and even if they could afford it, the uncertainty of whether their family members would be investigated by the police for having helped is a nightmare for somebody hoping to die peacefully.

Sir Vince Cable and Fiona Bruce quoted Lord Sumption. The fuller quote says:

“I think the law should continue to criminalise assisted suicide, and I think that the law should be broken from time to time…It has always been the case that it’s been criminal, but it’s also been the case that courageous friends and families have helped people to die…I don’t believe there’s a moral obligation to obey the law. Ultimately it’s for each person to decide.”

Coming from somebody who is a judge in the Supreme Court, that is absolutely breathtaking. The courts have challenged Parliament to address this issue and to clarify the law.

What we have is confusion. The clarification of the guidance by my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer when he was the Director of Public Prosecutions, while done with integrity and courage, does not eliminate the risk of prosecution, or certainly investigation and caution. Different constabularies, different doctors and different standards mean that we have not just a two-tier system but a multi-tiered system, and it does not protect the vulnerable. The Bill proposed by the former Member for Wolverhampton South West had 15 safeguards written into it. The law is not as strong today as it would have been had my hon. Friend’s excellent Bill been passed. We need better safeguards, and the 2015 Bill would have provided them.

I want to conclude by thanking the families of the bereaved and campaigners such as Dignity in Dying for the progress that we are making on this issue—because progress is being made. Public opinion is changing. The Lords is almost there and the Commons is slowly coming in behind. I think that eventually we will provide the people of Britain with the right to choose their own end.