Assisted Suicide — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:53 pm on 5th March 2014.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:53 pm, 5th March 2014

My Lords, in listening to the anger that the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, has just expressed, I cannot help reflecting that this is not a new debate that we are having this evening. After all, we have had two Select Committees of your Lordships’ House, as well as numerous debates and indeed votes in your Lordships’ House, and we have heard the arguments of the British Medical Association—after a vote among its members—and the royal colleges, the disability rights organisations, the palliative care movements and many of the organisations that have been referred to. Once all the arguments were put for grounds of public safety alone, your Lordships decided that it was not safe to change the law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who introduced the debate quite properly this evening, reminded us that it is only four years since these guidelines were put in place, but we have even debated those on three successive occasions. The criticism of the guidelines largely has come from those who are, reasonably enough—it is legitimate—pressing for a change in law. Instead of shadow-boxing around the guidelines, it would, as the noble and learned Lord, and my noble friend Lady Boothroyd, said, be better for us to be debating whether we want to set aside the Select Committees that we have had and the decisions that we have taken previously, and change our own laws.

We are told that the guidelines have de facto changed the law because it implies that assistance with suicide will not be prosecuted if it has been given from wholly compassionate motives. However, almost in the same breath, we hear the contradictory complaint that the policy is inadequate because it does not give immunity from prosecution. Of course, neither of these contradictory charges has any foundation: the policy has not changed the law and its purpose is not to give certainty to potential law-breakers. To do so would indeed amount to changing the law.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, also told us that the policy places decisions in the hands of one person, the DPP, and that when the DPP changes so too could the policy. I think that I need record here only what the Solicitor-General said about this in another place just two years ago. He said:

“If a future DPP overturned the guidelines, he would be judicially reviewed for behaving in a rather whimsical way”.—[Hansard, Commons, 27/3/12; col. 1380.]

As your Lordships are aware, there is nothing odd or unique about these arrangements. Prosecutorial discretion is a feature of the criminal law as a whole and there are published prosecution policies on a range of criminal offences other than encouraging or assisting suicide. We should keep the law as it stands for reasons of public safety.