Have decided to re-activate my blog, and run it up to the General Election. I wanted my first post to be about a current serious issue. There is none more serious that the Bill introduced into the House of Lords this week by Lord Falconer to legalise assisted suicide. I will be opposing this Bill, even though I accept that there may well be a majority of the public who take the opposing view. I can think of no better way of expressing my view that to share with you a speech I made on the issue in 2012. My view remains exactly the same today as it was then.
Thank you, Mr Speaker for calling me to speak in this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow Alun Michael in this debate. He and I do not always agree, but on this occasion I agreed with every word that he said. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Ottaway on the tone that he adopted in opening the debate. I thought it just right for the introduction of such an important debate.
I should declare an interest. I am a member of the board of Living and Dying Well, an organisation that commissions evidence-based research into end-of-life care. I have regular conversations with Lord Carlile who chairs it, and with Baroness Finlay, who has already been mentioned in this debate by other honourable members today.
I too have received several letters from members of the campaigning group, Dignity in Dying. I invariably write back disagreeing with them. However I always do so with a great deal of respect, because—like other Members who have spoken—I think that opinions on both sides of this debate are motivated by compassion. I do not think it right to be critical of those who take a different view from me when it is compassion that motivates them.
I have been concerned about some of the media coverage that has appeared before today’s debate. Much of it has seemed to suggest that we are contemplating, and perhaps moving towards, a change in the law. That is not the case. All that we are discussing today is a reaffirmation of the current position in law, which is why I am happy to support the motion before us.
I am probably unusual in the chamber today in having had an interest in assisted suicide for as long as it has been an offence. I was 17 in 1961, and an active member of my local young farmers club. As young farmers clubs do, we discussed the issues of the day in debating competitions. In one such debate I supported the decriminalisation of suicide, which was being considered at the time. Suicide was decriminalised. A key factor however, without which the law change would not have been passed was that an offence of assisting suicide was included in section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, it would simply not have been agreed without this clause introducing the offence of assisting a suicide. This clause was seen as an absolute protection, allowing the offence of suicide itself to be abolished.
My view remains exactly the same today. Over the last few days I have received many representations and briefings, as have many other Members. And over the months during which I have been a member of Living and Dying Well, we have commissioned several research papers. There so much information that it is almost impossible to engage one’s mind clearly with all of it. Because of the time limit on speeches today is so tight, I shall make just one fundamental point.
In 1961, I just knew that assisted suicide was wrong. I thought that it was extremely dangerous, and I still think that. If the Director of Public Prosecution's guidance became statutory we would, in effect, be legalising assisted suicide, and I believe that that would have a very negative impact on the frail elderly, the terminally ill, the incapacitated and the seriously depressed.
I have never believed that the malicious assister is the biggest problem, although that may well be a concern for many honourable members. What has always concerned me is the likelihood that the normalisation of assisted suicide would lead to uncertainty about their own worth among the groups whom I have listed. It would cause them to ask questions about their own value. They would see themselves as becoming a burden on society. When we talk to elderly people who are nearing the end of their lives, we often find that they are concerned about not being able to leave assets to their grandchildren. I believe that that concern would be much greater if assisted suicide were legalised and thus normalised. My view is that it was and is wrong, and that only in very special circumstances, decided as it now by the Director of Public Prosecution, should those guilty of assisted suicide not be prosecuted.