As you may know, assisted dying has previously been debated in Parliament, with a Bill being brought forward and I have to say that it was one of the most powerful debates that I have been involved in during my time here. It was something that I took very close interest in, so I fully appreciate concerns on both sides of this very sensitive issue. Coping with terminal illness is distressing and difficult both for the patient and their families. These cases are truly moving and evoke the highest degree of compassion and emotion.
Having carried out extensive research and considered the many messages on the subject that I had received, it was clear to me that the Bill contained a number of flaws including excessive pressures on vulnerable patients, doctors and nurses, a strong potential for legal challenges and action of individual cases. I also noted that institutions such as the British Medical Association were against the Bill whilst supportive of the current framework.
As I’m sure you appreciate, assisting or encouraging suicide is a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 for which the maximum penalty is 14 years' imprisonment. That said, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has published guidelines primarily concerned with advising the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors about the factors which they need to consider when deciding whether it is in the public interest to prosecute a person for this offence. The House of Commons has discussed the DPP's guidelines and these were unanimously commended as being a compassionate and measured way of dealing with one of the most emotionally-charged crimes in the statute book. However, they do not change the law and it has not been decriminalised.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has now further clarified the CPS Policy on the likelihood of prosecution of health care professionals, to specify that the relationship of care will be the important aspect and it will be necessary to consider whether the suspect may have been in a position to exert some influence on the victim. I believe the application of the law should be flexible enough to distinguish the facts and the circumstances of one case from another. To this end, the DPP's policy offers important and sensitive guidance.
However, everyone would agree that terminally ill patients should receive the highest quality palliative support and end-of-life care, and that they and their families should be certain all of their needs will be met. This is something that I am particularly passionate about and is a key feature of my work as Co-Chair of the Breast Cancer All Party Parliamentary Group, where I work with cancer charities, families and patients to highlight to Government their needs. It was also one of the key recommendations to come out of the Assisted Dying debate.
With this in mind, I welcomed the NHS Long Term Plan, prepared by the NHS in 2019, which builds on previous commitments made by the Government to personalise this care through informed conversations between healthcare professionals and those who are reaching the end of their lives.
I am encouraged by this commitment to help people live independently for longer, as well as a promise to give more people a greater say about the care they receive and where they receive it, particularly towards the end of their lives.
I believe empowering people with terminal conditions in this way will better enable them to access palliative care when and where they most need it. However, I recognise there are improvements to be made throughout the Specialist Palliative Care (SPC) sector. You may be pleased to know a report was published in August 2017, which highlights the professionalism and compassion throughout the Specialist Palliative Care (SPC) sector, but recognises that there are further improvements to be implemented. Reassuringly, whilst SPC services do not receive a rating from the Care Quality Commission (CQC), they are accountable to the CQC’s inspectors, who are committed to enforcing rigorous standards of care throughout the NHS.
I am also pleased to say that the National End of Life Care Programme Board is implementing the Government’s commitments, in partnership with all relevant arm’s length bodies, to ensure action and accountability.
I trust this response is helpful and thank you again for contacting me about this important issue.