David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
The last time the House of Commons voted on assisted dying, I was absent. It was a Friday and I had a longstanding constituency engagement and, truth be told, I was in two minds about it. Instinctively, I favoured giving people autonomy over how they ended their lives as they reached their end but I worried about the risks to the vulnerable who felt pressured.
In the years since, I have regretted not re-arranging my constituency engagement and voting for reform. I missed my chance as a legislator to contribute to changing this law but others now have the opportunity and it is clear that minds are being changed.
Michael Forsyth’s testimony is striking. He tells of how he had always felt hypocritical in voting against assisted dying because, when it came to it, he might want it for himself. What finally changed his mind was a conversation with his dying father. When Michael said to him that he was sorry that he was in pain, his father responded by saying “you’re to blame, Michael,” suggesting that a certain bluntness ran in the family, “for consistently voting against the right to die”.
A further case is Frank Field. It was revealed to the House of Lords on Friday that sadly Frank is terminally ill. In his statement, read by Baroness Meacher, he made the point that the experience of those places which have reformed the law that there is no evidence that the vulnerable have been pressured into taking their lives early. Safeguards can and should be put in place and, where this has happened, are working.
There will be some for whom any suggestion of a person being able to intervene to end their lives provokes profound moral and religious objections but the reality is that the fear of pain can drive people to end their lives earlier than they would otherwise do. This might involve taking their lives whilst they still can or taking themselves off to Dignitas whilst still able to travel.
The current law can also place greater stress on a dying person knowing that there might be a risk that their loved ones may face the risk of prosecution if – out of compassion – they act to help. This happened in the case of Geoffrey Whaley when the police investigated him and his wife (who had booked the flight tickets) as they prepared to travel to Switzerland.
Some years later, when I was Lord Chancellor, I met Mrs Whaley who told me that her late husband had been much more upset at the potential risk to his wife than he was about his imminent death. Presumably, those who support the current law think that Mrs Whaley (or, at least, others in similar circumstances) should have faced criminal prosecution. Alternatively, they believe that the current law should be ignored. Either way, it is an indefensible position.
Public opinion strongly favours reform. That does not mean that MPs and peers should necessarily agree to it (our legislators are representatives not delegates) but it does feel like it is only a matter of time before sufficient numbers of Parliamentarians agree to reform. Rather like gay marriage, once reform has happened, people in the future will struggle to understand why some had previously objected.
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As it happens, I was in Switzerland last week (not, I should point out, anything to do with Dignitas). It was fascinating to see the different approach to COVID. As with here, life is getting back to normal. Cases and deaths per head of population are much lower than in the UK (as is the case with most of Europe) but behavioural change in response to the virus is greater. On public transport, masks are worn by everyone and restaurants require evidence of being vaccinated.
This may be a case of cause and effect, of course. It is also the case that there are much greater levels of vaccine scepticism than we have in the UK. Anecdotally, it appears that women, especially of child-bearing age, are much less likely to get vaccinated.
One of the advantages that the UK has had in the last year has been relatively low levels of anti-vaccination sentiment. Those arguing that the vaccine is unsafe have found themselves on the fringes and take-up has been high. In part, this may have been as a consequence of the disastrous situation the UK found itself in the early months of 2021 when the Kent variant swept through the country and the level of cases and fatalities were much worse than elsewhere. Rightly, the country as a whole embraced vaccines as the way out. The fact that the UK was ahead of most other countries in its vaccine rollout only helped – it was an act of patriotism to get jabbed.
When there is less of a threat, the public can be more indulgent of vaccine scare stories. We have less of that here, but there has been a degree of complacency with take-up of the booster jab being somewhat slow.
The complacency may come to an end fairly soon. Sajid Javid – having once flirted with lockdown scepticism and having sought to strike a very different tone than his predecessor as Health Secretary – made an effort to shake off public (and, quite possibly, Governmental complacency) last week. We are a long way from the number of hospitalisations and deaths of the darkest days of the pandemic but cases are high and vaccine immunity is fading for those who were jabbed some months ago. It is clear that the Health Secretary is seeing advice that is worrying him.
Living with COVID is not the same as ignoring COVID and neither the Government nor the public can afford to be complacent. We are not out of the woods.
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A few weeks ago I wrote about the upcoming Budget and spending review. I stand by my previous assessment that the Chancellor will be in the fortunate position of having significantly better borrowing numbers than were predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, he will use some of that to ensure no departments face real terms cuts as well as cutting the taper rate of Universal Credit, but that for the most part the lowering borrowing numbers will be used to deliver lower borrowing.
The Chancellor, I suspect, will have fought off attempts to use this windfall for much higher spending or lower taxes by arguing that a war chest is needed in time for the next election. I think he is right to be cautious about the public finances but I am not sure he will necessarily be in a position for big giveaways in future.
There are real downside risks for the economy – a further COVID wave, a trade war with the EU, higher inflation resulting in higher interest rates, the markets getting even more nervous about the unorthodox way in which we are now governed. Just like the Health Secretary last week, this may be the week in which the Chancellor’s biggest objective is to dispel complacency.
There may be a pattern emerging – Ministers being tough on complacency, if not yet the cause of complacency.