‘The law is a mess’: Dame Esther Rantzen issues fresh call for free vote on assisted dying

29 February 2024, 06:11 | Updated: 29 February 2024, 08:28

Dame Esther said she was "disappointed" at no clear call for a vote on assisted dying
Dame Esther said she was "disappointed" at no clear call for a vote on assisted dying. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Dame Esther Rantzen has made a fresh call for a debate and vote on legalising assisted dying as a report warned that the Government must consider what to do if the law is changed in part of the UK or in the Isle of Man or Jersey.

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The Health and Social Care Committee said legalisation in at least one jurisdiction was looking "increasingly likely" and suggested the Government must be "actively involved" in discussions about how to approach differences in the law.

The report into what it described as the "emotive" subject of assisted dying (AD) and assisted suicide (AS) eight months after its final evidence session in July last year, does not make a recommendation for a vote on the issue.

The committee noted that the Government had made it clear it would be a matter for Parliament to take any steps towards legalisation should MPs wish to do so.

'I want to go out with champagne and caviar' says Dame Esther Rantzen

Dame Esther, whose revelation that she had joined the Dignitas assisted dying clinic in Switzerland put the subject under the spotlight in recent months, said she was "disappointed" at no clear call for a vote.

The Childline founder and broadcaster said: "The current law is a mess.

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"No, this report does not help very much for those of us who desperately want the current law to change for the sake of our own families, and the many others in our situation."

The 83-year-old, who has stage four cancer, has been campaigning on the issue, including backing the launch of a petition demanding a parliamentary vote, which amassed tens of thousands of signatures over a few weeks.

She added: "If they had said 'we urgently need a Parliamentary debate and a free vote', you know, that could perhaps have fitted into my own timescale, but it doesn't."

The report recognised that the issue was currently being considered in Jersey and the Isle of Man - both of which are British Crown Dependencies. These are not part of the UK, but are "self-governing possessions of the British Crown".

In Scotland, Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur is expected to introduce an assisted dying Bill to Holyrood later in the year.

Speaking to Lisa Aziz on LBC News he said the political mood has “shifted significantly”:

Mr McArthur said: "Catching up with where the public mood has been for many many years where we see consistently in poll after poll overwhelming public support for a change in the law to allow assisted dying.

"And I think more and more we're seeing people with their own experience of losing a family member."

The committee, in its report published on Thursday, stated: "Although Select Committees usually make recommendations to Government, in respect of AD/AS, the Government has made it clear that it will not take any steps towards legalising AD/AS but instead that this would be Parliament's role, should members wish to do so."

Instead, the committee said it aimed to "gather the most up-to-date information and views on the topic to inform Parliament and the wider public" in the years since the last time the issue was voted on in the Commons in 2015.

Since launching its inquiry in December 2022, the committee received more than 68,000 responses from members of the public through an online form, with more than 380 pieces of written evidence also submitted.

Assisted suicide is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

But with the issue being considered in other jurisdictions, a "divergence in legislation" was something the Government must prepare for, the report said.

The committee said: "The UK Government must consider how to respond to another jurisdiction in the UK, or the Crown Dependencies, legislating to allow AD/AS, and how it may impact jurisdictions which do not allow it.

"Following the recommendation by the Jersey Citizens' Assembly, it looks increasingly likely that at least one jurisdiction among the UK and Crown Dependencies will allow AD/AS in the near future and ministers should be actively involved in discussions on how to approach the divergence in legislation."

Number 10 has previously said it would be up to Parliament whether or not to again debate legalising assisted dying.

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repeated that sentiment earlier this month saying it would be a free vote in Parliament and that if a decision was taken for a change to the law, the Government would facilitate that.

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who backed a change in the law in 2015, went further in December when he said that a private members' bill and a free vote "seems appropriate".

Meanwhile, the report also concluded that while the UK had long been a world leader in palliative and end-of-life care, access to and provision of such care was "patchy".

It said: "The Government must ensure universal coverage of palliative and end-of-life services, including hospice care at home.

"It is important that everyone is able to choose what type of support they need at the end of their life, and that their advanced care plan is honoured where possible."

The report called for the Government to commit to an uplift of funding to guarantee support for hospices which needed financial help.

It also described a "pressing need" for better mental health support for terminally ill people, and recommended the Government commission research on the subject and report back to Parliament.

MPs said there should be a "national strategy for death literacy and support following a terminal diagnosis" to help healthcare professionals to better support a dying person and their loved ones "from the moment of a terminal diagnosis".

Health and Social Care Committee chairman Steve Brine said: "The inquiry on assisted dying and assisted suicide raised the most complex issues that we as a committee have faced, with strong feelings and opinions in the evidence we heard.

"We intend the information and testimony we present in our report today to have a lasting legacy and, as we set out in the initial terms of reference, be a significant and useful resource for future debates on the issue. That could still be during this Parliament of course or after the next general election.

"We're particularly grateful to those who shared very difficult personal stories. The accounts were enormously helpful to us as we considered the issues involved and I'd like to put my thanks on record."

Dignity In Dying said the issue will be a key one for candidates in the general election, adding: "The next generation of MPs must listen to the public mood and finally break the deadlock on assisted dying."

Campaign group Care Not Killing welcomed the report but added it was "disappointing that they (MPs) have not come down firmly against changing the law".

Louise Davies, from the charity Christian Action Research and Education, warned of the wider impact of a change in the law.

She said: "The cross-border effects of an assisted suicide have not been considered.

"We would ask how the safety of patients in one area, treated under very different ethical guidelines, could be maintained when they are able to relocate to another area and access assisted death?"

Bishop of London Dame Sarah Mullally, a former chief nursing officer for England, welcomed the recommendations on palliative and end-of-life care.

Noting the 2022 Church of England General Synod vote to oppose a change in the law, she said: "This is about offering compassion and direct support for the terminally ill, to ensure the highest possible standard of care for all."

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