Parliament’s Backbench Business committee awarded me time to debate a motion on the application of the law on assisted suicide on Tuesday 27 March 2012. I opened this section on my website to keep constituents, and those interested, up to date.
The motion I tabled, which sought parliamentary endorsement of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) Policy for Prosecutors in respect of cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide, has now been debated and passed unanimously, with an amendment reinforcing Parliament’s commitment to improving specialist palliative care. This debate was the first substantive debate on the law on assisted suicide on the floor of the House of Commons since suicide and attempted suicide were decriminalised in 1961.
The full motion, passed by the House of Commons was:
"This House welcomes the Director of Public Prosecutions' Policy for Prosecutors in respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide published in February 2010 and encourages further development of specialist palliative care and hospice provision."
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What was the debate about?
The debate was about the application of the existing law on assisted suicide, and specifically the DPP’s Policy for Prosecutors in respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide, which at the time of the debate had been in place for just over two years.
The original motion that I tabled, pre-amendment, was worded in the following way:
"This House welcomes the Director of Public Prosecutions' Policy for Prosecutors in respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide published in February 2010."
You can read a transcript of the debate here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201212/cmhansrd/cm120327/debtext/120327-0002.htm#12032752000001
What is the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) Guidance and why do they matter?
Prior to The Suicide Act 1961 it was an offence to attempt suicide. However, Parliament agreed that it was neither appropriate nor compassionate to prosecute those who attempted suicide. This new law created a new offence of assisted suicide aimed at protecting people from abuse. Aiding or encouraging suicide could now result in a 14 year prison sentence, but Parliament decreed that prosecutions could only take place with the direct approval of the DPP. In doing so they implicitly recognised that some cases should result in prosecutions whilst others shouldn’t. The problem for us today is that they didn’t detail which.
“Assisting suicide” can mean very different things. It can mean a person maliciously and unforgivably encouraging a teenager to kill themselves over the internet. Or it can mean a person compassionately helping a suffering, dying loved one to end their life, at that person’s request. Everyone would agree that the first type of person should be punished very strongly. But many people believe the second type of person should be treated compassionately by the law. In practice, this is what was happening before the DPP published his Policy, because the DPP was very rarely prosecuting cases where people compassionately assisted another person to die.
However, it was very difficult for people to predict whether or not they could be prosecuted because it was not clear how the DPP decided whether or not to prosecute in each case. For example, people wanted to know whether they would be likely to be prosecuted for helping a dying relative travel to Switzerland to die. So the Courts instructed the DPP to produce a Policy on the factors he would take into account when deciding whether or not to prosecute. This is the 2010 DPP Policy which is the subject of the debate I tabled.
The 2010 Policy sets out the factors the DPP will take into account when deciding whether or not to prosecute cases of assisted suicide. The Policy lists 16 factors in favour of prosecution (such as the suspect pressuring the victim to commit suicide) and six factors against prosecution. These are:
• the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide;
• the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion;
• the actions of the suspect were of only minor encouragement or assistance;
• the suspect tried to dissuade the victim from committing suicide;
• the suspect was reluctant to assist;
• the suspect reported the victim's suicide to the police and fully assisted them in their enquiries.
So this Policy makes it clear how the law is applied. Basically it makes a distinction between people who compassionately assist a death and people who maliciously assist a death and says that compassionate assistance is unlikely to be prosecuted.
The motion that I tabled gave MPs the first chance in 40 years to discuss assisted suicide on a substantive motion. It also gave them a chance to endorse the Policy (by voting for the motion) or reject it (by voting against the motion).
What was the outcome of the debate?
The tabled motion—amended to encourage the development of end-of-life care—was passed unanimously. This demonstrates that parliament endorses the flexible and compassionate approach taken by the DPP in cases of assisted suicide.
What does this mean for the DPP’s Policy, and for the law, on assisted suicide?
As a direct result of the debate there has been, and will be, no change to the DPP’s Policy on assisted suicide and therefore the discretion that the DPP is obliged to exercise in cases of assistance to die is still required. Assisting someone to die in England and Wales remains a crime, which is punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Prosecution is only avoided by exercise of the DPP’s discretion as set out in the 1961 Suicide Act and subsequent guidelines. Any changes to the policy must be as a result of instruction by the Supreme Court to, or issued by, the incumbent DPP and therefore it was outside the scope of the debate to make any recommendations to that effect.
Parliament saw fit to endorse the DPP’s policy in this area and, as a consequence of the debate taking place, the Policy on assisted suicide has been strengthened.
What does this mean for Parliament?
I believe, as elected representatives, we have shown that we do have the courage to tackle difficult issues that are of great interest to the public and in building a consensus around the DPP’s policy on assisted suicide, we have also shown that we can arrive at a well-informed and considered position that places the public’s interests at the heart of the matter. For all the negative press Parliament receives, I believe this debate has shown MPs at their best.
What does this mean for the Public?
I believe that Parliament’s endorsement of the DPP’s flexible and compassionate policy on assisted suicide is an important development in society’s approach to end-of-life decision making. I believe, also, that the Policy has been strengthened by the very fact that the debate has taken place, adding further—clarity, reassurance, and compassion to those who are affected by the issues surrounding assisted suicide.