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The government must set the Commons free to make up its mind on the issue of assisted dying

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4 min read

With public opinion solidly in favour of assisted dying, the government must make time in the Commons to let MPs come to a decision on this matter of conscience

It is surely wrong that people seeking release are kept in pain; that every eight days a terminally ill Briton travels to Switzerland to end their life; that that route is open only to those with the £10,000 to pay for it; that up to 650 terminally ill people in the UK end their life at home with no medical oversight; and that many more try and fail.”

Ruth Davidson summarised the case in her maiden speech in the Lords. She supported the Assisted Dying Bill, having opposed similar legislation in the Scottish parliament. 

The Lords debate revealed many others’ views changing. Lord Forsyth said he changed his mind after the experience of his father dying. Baroness Meacher read a message from Frank Field describing how his views changed after seeing a friend die. 

Most movingly for me, Liz Symons described the death of her husband, and her change of heart: “I did not know how to alleviate his dreadful suffering. All I could do was pray that it would be over soon. If I had known how to make his death easier, calmer and quieter, I would have done so, but I did not know and could not help him. I wish that I had known how to ease his end – but that would have been illegal, of course, and remains illegal for anybody in the position I was in. That is very wrong. I support the bill.”

Decision-makers may be on the move. Public opinion is not. For decades it has supported assisted dying for the terminally ill, by overwhelming margins, now comfortably higher than 80 per cent. 

The Assisted Dying Bill passed unopposed on 22 October 2021 following its second reading in the Lords. 

But the bill will die, either choked by filibustering amendments preventing it completing all its stages in time, or because the government will not make time in the Commons. There have been 200 amendments tabled already, almost all from peers with longstanding and deep-rooted objections to the bill. 

The Scottish Parliament will consider an Assisted Dying Bill during its next session. Jersey’s States Assembly has voted by a large margin to introduce assisted dying legislation. The Dáil has approved legislation in principle and a special committee is now examining draft legislation.

In all three, parliament has or will get an opportunity to express a view on the principle. And where they have said yes, detailed scrutiny follows.

In some jurisdictions across the world – Oregon, Washington and Colorado – change has come through referenda. In others, such as Canada, through the courts. In New Zealand, parliament debated legislation and then put the decision to the people in a referendum. In Jersey, the islanders were consulted first through a citizens’ jury.

Some things matter a lot to people but not to the major parties

In England and Wales it has, rightly, to be the UK Parliament, more specifically the Commons, which decides the principle. I don’t know which side the Commons will take, but I’m absolutely sure it should consider it and reach a conclusion.

If MPs were to vote in favour of a second reading of an Assisted Dying Bill it would be wrong for their will to be frustrated by procedural devices, whether in the Lords or the Commons. 

Some things matter a lot to people but not to the major parties. This is one of those issues – a matter of conscience. Conscience is a weak voice in Parliament when competing with party interest. 

The government on this issue should set the Commons free to make up its mind. Friend or foe, there needs to be a conclusion.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton is a Labour peer

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