Assisted Dying

Part of Sale of New Petrol and Diesel Cars and Vans – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:47 pm, 4th July 2019

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will endeavour to conclude my speech a few minutes before 5 o’clock to allow Nick Boles a few minutes in which to respond, if he wishes to do so.

It is rare for a Private Member’s Bill Friday to be one of the most memorable occasions in the House, but the debate that took place in 2015 on a private Member’s Bill on this subject was one of the most memorable during my time in the House thus far. It was a crowded House; the speeches were many and of an exceptionally high quality; and the Division saw an exceptionally large number of Members voting on a Private Member’s Bill. It was an example of the House at its best, debating a deeply emotive issue of huge significance in a dignified, informed and passionate but also respectful manner. The same is true of today’s debate, which it is a privilege to wind up on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

I have been contacted by a number of constituents with different views on this subject, as, I am sure, have many other Members. They have asked me to attend the debate and to speak in it. I had to say to them that while, as a Minister, I would endeavour to attend, I would not be able to speak; but, having been nominated by the Government to respond, I can now say that it is a privilege to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on securing the debate. Indeed, I congratulate all 26 Members who have spoken, including the shadow Minister, Imran Hussain. I will turn to their individual comments shortly, but all spoke with sincerity and from the heart.

Since that 2015 debate, legal and other developments and campaigns have served to keep this issue very much in the public eye. In respect of campaigners in the House, it behoves me to mention one of my hon. Friends who, by virtue of his ministerial office, can no longer campaign and speak about the issue. My hon. Friend Kit Malthouse did a great deal in this regard before becoming a Minister. We have seen various opinion polls and media coverage, most recently on Radio 4’s “Today” programme, focused on this issue.

The Government’s position remains that any changes to the law in this area remain an issue of conscience for individual Members of this House, and it is right that this is so given the strength of the deeply and sincerely held views on both sides of this debate. It remains a matter for this House to decide, not the Government, but a Government must implement and work with whatever this Parliament and future Parliaments decide. In the recent lectures by Lord Sumption, which a number of Members have alluded to, he touched on this issue, and while it is important that the courts should, and do, interpret the law, Parliament cannot and should not seek to avoid or outsource decisions on such profound moral questions to them. It is for this Parliament to debate and to determine the law in this area.

As I mentioned, powerful and moving arguments are put by both sides, and we have heard many of them today. Those speeches whether in favour of or opposing a change in the law were equally motivated by compassion and a sense of humanity. Those who oppose changes to the current framework do so from the basis of profoundly held views about the sanctity of human life and about the position a change could place medical professionals in, and because they have genuinely held concerns about whether vulnerable people, or people with a serious and terminal illness who are at their lowest ebb, may feel pressure, real or imagined, to take such a step, and they fear that no safeguards, however well-designed, could adequately protect against this.

We heard very powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and although Lyn Brown did not make a speech, she intervened on a number of occasions powerfully and movingly.

Those who advocate change again do so on the basis of sincerely held and equally strong views. No one can fail to be deeply moved by the situations in individual cases described by people as they set out the terrible choices they and their loved ones faced, and in that context, I pay tribute to the dignity shown by Ann Whaley in her campaigning on this issue, reflecting her situation and that of her husband, Geoffrey, which I know has deeply moved Members of this House and, indeed, those outside this place.

I would like to recognise those across the country who have campaigned, including a number of my constituents—for example, those in the Leicestershire and Rutland Dignity in Dying group. They have contacted me, as I am sure different groups and individuals will have contacted other Members or even come to see them to set out with conviction, sincerity and always courtesy their reasons for wishing to see this House reflect on the law and consider changing it. They wish to see the law changed to allow those who are terminally ill and in great pain, and who have the ability to make such a decision, to decide what they wish to do with their own body and life and their right to have a choice in ending that life with dignity, and with assistance if they need it, without fear for them or their loved ones. They have set out, as I said, their case with equal dignity, and I pay tribute to them all now.

I turn to the Members who spoke very powerfully in support of changes in this space, and I pick out to start with of course my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, who spoke deeply movingly and, I know, on a very personal basis. He asked a very specific point about a call for evidence. I know that he has recently met and spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, where he put, with typical eloquence and persuasiveness, his case. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is reflecting carefully on the case that the hon. Gentleman put to him.

Other hon. Members spoke movingly from a personal perspective in arguing for a change. Paul Blomfield spoke with incredible dignity and courage in sharing his very personal story with us and those beyond this place, and he did it because he believed that that was the right thing to do to advance this debate. I pay tribute to him. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Antoinette Sandbach and the hon. Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for their very personal stories, and to Sir Vince Cable for his willingness to share a very personal story reflecting his position. I would say to him that, whatever view one takes on this issue or others, the willingness to change one’s mind is a sign of strength and never of weakness.

I will reference other hon. Members, but I will not go into what they said, owing to pressure of time. They are my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), Carolyn Harris, Norman Lamb and the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). I think that I have referenced every right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken. They all spoke with passion, with clarity and with a true sense of the tone in which we would wish the House to conduct this debate. I pay tribute to them all.

This has been humbling debate to listen to and to have the opportunity to wind up. The views on both sides of the debate have been reflected with eloquence and dignity in the House. This Parliament has a responsibility to the people we represent. It has a responsibility to deliberate on behalf of our nation on the most difficult questions that we consider, and this is certainly among them. It is right that the House continues to do this, and I believe that the tone and content of this debate reflect how those who send us to this place would wish us to conduct ourselves.