Matt Hancock has confirmed that the Government is “not recommending” the introduction of assisted suicide to the United Kingdom.
Hancock made the statement at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Dying Well yesterday evening.
During the meeting, he also endorsed setting up a “What Works” centre to gather evidence on the quality of end-of-life care in the UK.
The APPG for Dying Well opposes a change in the law on assisted dying and euthanasia, and argues that high-quality palliative care is instead the solution to end-of-life issues.
He said: “I think it is important that any debate that we have is nested in a wider debate about how we support people better towards the end of their lives”.
The Chair of the APPG, Danny Kruger MP, argued that there was a lack of data on people’s experiences at the end of their lives, and that a ‘What Works’ Centre used to gather evidence on certain policy areas would accrue data that is currently lacking and thus “inform practice on the ground so that both the public and practitioners knew what good practice looks like”.
Mr Hancock said: “I love What Works Centres, I think they’re a great policy innovation (but) it would be very important that, like me, it was neutral in this debate”. He added: “I’ll have to look at the exact wording of what you want me to sign up to, but I think you can see where I am in principle”.
Mr Kruger cited the example of Noel Conway, long-time assisted suicide campaigner, who passed away recently after deciding to remove his ventilator, as an example of how our existing end-of-life care options can give terminally-ill people a “painless and dignified death within the law as it currently stands”.
“He was able quite legally to come off the ventilator, which was keeping him alive and with the help of his medical team to slip away without shortness of breath, without pain, in dignity and with his family around him”.
Mr Kruger also highlighted the fact that more than 1 in 25 deaths in the Netherlands are now recorded as euthanasia or assisted dying, and that a mere 5% of UK doctors working in end-of-life care wish to see a change in the law.
Katherine Sleeman, the Laing Galazka Professor of Palliative Care at King’s College London, argued against a change in the law.
She told the meeting, “The risk of harm of changing the law outweighs the risk of harm if we leave the law as it is”.
She added: “I am deeply concerned that our societal conversation is being driven by hyperbole and fear, not by evidence and information and it’s wrong and dangerous to frame this as a choice between suffering and suicide”.
She acknowledged that there were “large gaps” in knowledge around the quality of palliative care outcomes.
Eleven-time gold-medal winning Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was also among the speakers. She said: “One of the things that we always have to deal with is conflation to disability, frailty and illness, and especially illness and disability are often wrongly used interchangeably”.
She added: “I’ve lost track of the number of people who have asked me have I thought about ending my life, because they have an assumption that my life is so terrible and tragic”.
She said that in the debate around assisted suicide “we are constantly told there will be safeguards but we have no idea of what they are going to be”.
She continued: “We are asked to pass the law and then work out the safeguards… I just don’t think that is good enough. That is why a huge number of disabled people feel threatened”.
Over 120 people attended in total, including over 70 parliamentarians.
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said: “As assisted suicide campaigners prepare for Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill to receive its second reading in Parliament in the autumn, it is vital that all the facts regarding such a change in the law are made clear. As Mr Kruger has repeatedly pointed out, this legislation almost always expands whenever it has been tried. Such a change in the UK’s law on the issue would likely lead to the increased stigmatisation of people who have a terminal illness or disability”.
“It is good news that the Health Secretary is open to gathering more data on palliative care, and that he and the Government will remain neutral on the question of assisted suicide. However, it is clear that, whatever the data shows, we have a duty to prioritise the equality and dignity of all human beings, regardless of their health status”.