It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jeff Smith, although I disagree with most of what he said. That does not mean that my mind is not open.
I wanted to take part in the debate in response to requests from constituents urging me to attend and represent their views. Unsurprisingly, their views are more or less equally split—from the retired GP who urged me not to support any changes, to those who were moved by the very sad case of Geoffrey Whaley to ask whether it would be possible for a change in the law to be made. We all know that this is an emotive issue that divides opinion, with strongly held views on both sides.
I was present in the Chamber the last time we debated this issue, when Rob Marris brought a Bill on assisted dying to the House. On that occasion, 85 Members were hoping to speak, and I was unable to make a contribution due to the huge amount of interest. We must remember that the Bill fell, with 330 Members voting against it and 118 for it. I am proud to say that I voted against the Bill.
I am grateful to be able to make a contribution today, but the views that I held in 2015 have not changed—that does not mean my mind is closed—and I will try to briefly outline why I still feel the same way. My concern then, and my concern now, is that in the current climate, at a time of overstretched NHS budgets and massively underfunded social care, if assisted dying were legalised, it would begin to be seen as an alternative to treatment and care. I believed then, and I believe now, that there is a real risk of a subtle but dangerous culture change in which vulnerable, terminally ill patients come to see assisted dying as a treatment option and the best way to stop themselves becoming a burden to their families, the NHS and wider society.
I worry also about our attitude towards people with disabilities. In 2015, a disability campaigner expressed their concern to me about changes in legislation having the potential to lead to value judgments being made about whether other people’s lives are worth living or not and to send out a message that suicide is acceptable in some cases. As the campaigner said to me,
“Someone taking their own life is seen as a tragedy, except if that person is disabled. Then it is seen as understandable.”
I do not believe that there have been any societal changes between then and now that have led to any alteration in attitudes towards those with disabilities, and those concerns remain valid.
The retired GP, whom I referred to earlier, told me that in her career she had been asked on a few occasions by terminally ill patients if she could end their lives for them. She said to me that when she had explored their issues, she found common themes, including the fear of being left alone without support, worrying about suffering from poorly controlled pain for the rest of their lives and the need not to be a burden on medical staff and carers. There were also psychological issues, including profound sadness and despair at their predicament, sometimes accompanied by depressive illness. However, she then told me that, once she had addressed these concerns properly, the request to end life was not been made again, and in most cases it had been possible to achieve a dignified and peaceful death.
If we are to achieve this outcome, it will require good quality palliative care, which does not come cheaply. I speak as a vice-chair of the all-party group on hospices and end of life care. We need to look at the funding of hospices and palliative care, a huge proportion of which comes from charity fundraising, and we need to put the provision of good-quality end of life care on a much more sustainable basis. Some of my constituents who support changes in the law have said to me that they want to see changes because:
“Nobody should be forced to live in unbearable pain.”
I completely agree with that, and that is exactly why we need to make sure that patients receive better palliative care, and to ensure that better information and support are given to terminally ill patients and their families.
I welcome this debate, which forces us to ask the right questions about how we care for the sick and the dying, but I believe strongly that the answer lies in improving palliative care and making it accessible to all those who need it. We need to get that right, rather than changing the law on assisted dying.