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Former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt MP calls for Royal Commission on Assisted Dying

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Claire Ward said that she could not commit to such a commission.

Former Health Secretary and patron of Dignity in Dying, the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt MP, last night called on the government to establish a Royal Commission to consider the law on assisted dying. Ms Hewitt welcomed the Director of Public Prosecutions’ new guidelines in relation to the friends and relatives of people seeking an assisted death, but said they are not enough.

While working as Health Secretary, Ms Hewitt became increasingly concerned about the plight of individuals who were seeking an assisted death but who could not and who cannot get that help legally in the UK.

Ms Hewitt went on to say ‘If I am ever faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, I do not know what choice I would make for myself, but I do know that I want that choice.’

She warmly welcomed the publication of the Government’s End of Life Care strategy in its work to improve quality and access of palliative care, but acknowledged that palliative care, however good, is not the answer for everyone. Patricia Hewitt went on to discuss the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and the numbers of people using Dignitas as a solution to the lack of choice here in the UK. She explained that other desperate people find that they have to refuse food and water in order to exercise some control over when and how they die. And further to this, each year, a number of terminally ill people resort in desperation to violent, lonely and often botched suicides.

Ann Cryer MP supported Ms Hewitt’s question and reinforced that palliative care and assisted dying are mutually exclusive.

For all of the reasons she discussed, Patricia Hewitt MP came to the conclusion that the Government should undertake a Royal Commission or an independent inquiry to look at ‘the evidence from places that have already legalised assisted dying, to consider the numbers of British people seeking an assisted death either here or abroad, to examine the position of medical and nursing staff under present law, and to make proposals on how vulnerable people might best be protected from abuse or exploitation if the law were to be changed.’ She proposed that such a report could then form the basis for a wider debate, not just among the public but above all in Parliament, about the best way forward.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Claire Ward, then responded. She acknowledged that the law in this area arouses strong and deeply divided views across the political divide, the public, the media and many Members of the House. She reinforced that any change in the law is an issue of individual conscience, and is rightly a matter for Parliament rather than Government policy to decide. She stated that the Government therefore takes a neutral view when others seek to change the law, and therefore should neither stand in the way of such a change nor actively pursue it. She said the same was the case in relation to the law around ‘mercy killing’. She acknowledged the public support for assisted dying and the compassion that drives this, as well as the concerns from the other side of the argument.

Dignity in Dying commends Patricia Hewitt’s efforts to raise this crucial issue for debate in the House of Commons. We are disappointed that the Government will not commit to a Royal Commission on assisted dying at this stage, but we will continue to press for a much needed debate based on evidence and fact, not unsubstantiated fears.