Inquiry into changing law on assisted dying accused of prejudice; Critics say commission's views are already known
Frances Gibb Legal Editor
Publication date: 1 December 2010
Source: The Times
© 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved
Sir Terry Pratchett, the author and a sufferer of Alzheimer's disease, is co-funding an inquiry into whether the law should be changed to permit "assisted dying".
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the chairman of the commission of inquiry that will examine the arguments, said it would consider which categories of people might be "entitled lawfully to be assisted to die", including the disabled or terminally ill.
The inquiry will also look at which safeguards would be needed, but it would not extend to "mercy killing" and euthanasia, which in law are regarded as murder.
The commission, whose other cash backer is the businessman Bernard Lewis, was immediately criticised for lacking independence.
Peter Saunders, campaign director of the Care Not Killing alliance, said: "This so-called independent commission has all the appearances of a stitch-up and serious questions have been raised about transparency and objectivity. Almost all the people on it have publicly declared their views."
John Wiles, chairman of the board of Care Not Killing, also questioned why the subject of the commission was "assisted dying", which he argued could imply helping to end someone's life for the person, rather than helping someone to end his or her own life. "If it is really confined to assisted suicide, why not say so? This suggests it will go farther," he said.
Lord Falconer, who tried last year to amend the law on assisted suicide, insisted that his commission would be "an objective, dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the issues".
The former Justice Secretary said that the law had been left with guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). "And that is where the issue rests: a law not enforced, the limits set by the DPP," he said. He added: "Is that the right place to leave it? Do we need to change the law? If so, how?" The commission will take evidence from experts and the public and report by next December.
Among those invited to give evidence are Baroness Finlay, co-chairwoman of Living and Dying Well; Lord Joffe, proposer of a Private Member's Bill on assisted suicide; Baroness Warnock, moral philosopher and supporter of assisted suicide; Dr Saunders; and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Lord Falconer said: "The issue needs calm and measured work to look at the facts, about how people presently do die, about how decisions regarding the very end of life are made in the UK, about experience in other countries, about public opinion, about what the effect of leaving the law as it is would be, and about what the likely effect of changing it would be."
The commission includes the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Blair of Boughton; the Rev Canon James Woodward, Anglican priest and Canon of St George's Chapel, Windsor; and Stephen Duckworth, founder and chief executive of Disability Matters.
Assisted suicide is a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The DPP issued new guidelines in February after the right-todie campaigner Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, took her case to the highest court in the country. Anyone acting with compassion to help to end the life of a person who has decided that he or she cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges, but each case will be judged on its merits and anyone who carries out a "mercy killing" would be open to murder or manslaughter charges.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the charity Scope, said: "There is a desperate need for a real and open debate. However, we are deeply concerned that this pseudo-'commission' will not reflect the concerns and fears of disabled people. When it is funded by supporters of legalising assisted suicide and without a formal remit from Government, we would question how independent this commission really can be." But Sarah Wootton, the chief executive officer of Dignity in Dying, said: "The commission provides an historic opportunity to resolve these issues once and for all."