Changing the law on assisted dying
Last summer my friend and colleague Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
This is a terminal neurological condition that attacks the nervous system and gradually reduces a person’s ability to move, communicate, swallow and breathe until they die. Having been forced into retirement shortly after his diagnosis, Ron died in December.
In his final months, Ron called for a change in the law on assisted dying. He, like the vast majority of the population, wanted to see a law that would allow dying people to choose the manner and timing of their deaths, subject to stringent safeguards.
Ron’s experiences lit a fire beneath me and many of my colleagues across the country. In October, I coordinated a letter in which almost half of the PCCs for England and Wales wrote to Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, asking him to launch an inquiry into how the assisted dying ban was working in practice.
Reviewing the law
I am pleased to say that this week, Buckland said he was actively considering such a review. This is welcome news and shows there is a clear understanding in Government that there are problems with the law as it stands. I hope the Justice Secretary will commit to this inquiry in the near future so we can all work towards a better law.
As a former police officer and now as a PCC, I know too well the damage that can be done by a law that is not fit for purpose. Laws that do not attract public confidence are difficult to enforce and almost impossible to prosecute.
Even worse, I know from my years of service that prohibition does not eliminate a practice, indeed in many cases this will simply drive it underground. That is the case with assisted dying, where Britons are travelling to Switzerland at the rate of one a week.
Hundreds of dying people take their own lives at home every year, behind closed doors, without any oversight or involvement from medical professionals. Those who lack the funds or strength for these options may be forced to suffer against their wishes in their last days and weeks of life.
Protecting vulnerable people
As the national PCC lead on suicide, the protection of vulnerable people is at the forefront of my concerns. I and many colleagues believe there are insufficient checks and balances in place to prevent abuse or coercion under the current law.
For instance, in the last ten years, 152 cases have been referred to the CPS by the police. But in that same period well over 300 Britons have travelled to Dignitas, let alone those assisted to die by other Swiss organisations, or those who have taken the law into their own hands in this country.
The police, prosecution and social services are simply unaware of the extent of these cases, which makes it impossible to justify a law that is supposedly founded on the safeguarding of vulnerable people. And because these cases are almost always investigated after a person has died, there is no protection for the very people who are supposed to be safeguarded.
So, if police investigations are rare and prosecutions even more so, why should we, as law enforcement professionals, be so concerned? Because it puts dying people, their families and the police into dreadful positions.
Consider Ann Whaley, whose husband Geoff travelled to Dignitas in February last year. She was interviewed under caution by the local domestic violence team just weeks before Geoff was due to travel. Not only were she and her husband of more than 50 years terrified of prosecution, they were even more scared that Geoff would be denied the dignified death he wanted. Ann said police officers had been professional and compassionate, but evidently distressed by having to intervene in such a clearly loving family at a time of great sadness.
Consider also Mavis Eccleston, who in February 2018 attempted to take her own life alongside her husband Dennis, who was suffering from end-stage bowel cancer. They had been married for more than sixty years and Dennis was adamant he wanted to control his death. Mavis survived her attempt and found herself charged with murder and manslaughter.
After 18 months of investigation and prosecution, she was acquitted unanimously by a jury at Stafford Crown Court. But think of the distress this family suffered. Think of the resources spent to prosecute a case that, under a more compassionate law, need never have happened.
Faced with a law that does not command public confidence, that is routinely being broken by normally law-abiding families, and that is causing real suffering for both investigators and the investigated, we must surely accept the need for a review.
Robert Buckland should be congratulated for taking these concerns seriously and for examining these terrible cases. It is time for a better law, a safer law, and a kinder law for all of society.