Campaigners for and against law change gather before assisted dying debate

Campaigners both for and against a change in the law on assisted dying are gathering outside Parliament as MPs prepare to take part in debate over a petition on the issue backed by Dame Esther Rantzen.

The Childline founder and broadcaster, who has stage four lung cancer, has said law reform would “mean that I could look forward in confidence to a death which is pain-free surrounded by people I love”.

Dame Esther’s revelation in December that she had joined the assisted dying clinic Dignitas helped to put the issue back in the headlines.

The 83-year-old former That’s Life! presenter is not attending the Westminster Hall debate on Monday due to her health, but has vowed to watch closely, having previously said it “affects my own decision to go to Dignitas in Zurich if necessary, to protect my family from witnessing a painful death”.

Dame Esther Rantzen said she will be watching Monday's debate closely but cannot attend due to her health (Esther Rantzen/PA)
Dame Esther Rantzen said she will be watching Monday’s debate closely but cannot attend because of her health (Esther Rantzen/PA)

Dame Esther’s efforts in speaking out on the issue have been praised by fellow pro-change campaigner Dame Prue Leith.

The Great British Bake Off judge, who is also unable to attend Monday’s debate due to filming commitments, thanked Dame Esther for “everything she has done to make our politicians sit up and pay attention”.

Dame Prue said: “What is needed is less pearl-clutching about whether this reform should happen, and more serious, constructive debate about how to craft the best possible law for our dying people.”

Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, who has previously described the current law as “increasingly unbearable” following the death of his younger brother Nicholas, who suffered with motor neurone disease (MND), is expected to be among the high profile figures gathered outside Parliament.

Dame Prue Leith
Dame Prue Leith said there must be less pearl-clutching about whether reform is needed and more serious debate on a change in the law in connection with assisted dying (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Others including actor Dame Susan Hampshire and long-time campaigner Peter Tatchell are said to be lending their voices to calls for a change in the law at a demonstration in central London ahead of the debate.

Pro-change campaign group Dignity in Dying said terminally ill people and bereaved relatives will also be among those gathered, while the organisation My Death, My Decision described it as a “significant moment in the campaign for a compassionate assisted dying law”.

The petition for a debate, which gained more than 200,000 signatures, stated: “Terminally ill people who are mentally sound and near the end of their lives should not suffer unbearably against their will.”

Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, a member of the Petitions Committee, is due to open the debate, while victims and safeguarding minister Laura Farris will respond on behalf of the Government.

There will not be a vote.

The issue was last voted on in the Commons in 2015, when it was defeated at second reading stage by 330 votes to 118.

But it has been less than two years since a Westminster Hall debate on assisted dying took place, with one held in July 2022.

On that occasion, some 38 MPs contributed to the three-hour debate.

Dame Esther Rantzen has pleaded for MPs to attend the  debate, telling the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “Whatever their view, whether they support a change in the law or not, it is so important that they hear the evidence from around the world because other countries are ahead of us.”

On a change in the law, she added: “Personally, it would mean that I could look forward in confidence to a death which is pain-free surrounded by people I love.

“Isn’t it typically British that we give the pets we love a pain-free, dignified, private death but we can’t offer it to the people we love.”

Those who oppose a change in the law have voiced concerns that legalising assisted dying could put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a burden on others, and argue the disabled, elderly, sick or depressed could be especially at risk.

Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of the campaign group Care Not Killing, described Monday’s debate as a missed opportunity to talk about fixing the UK’s palliative and social care system.

He said: “Instead of discussing this dangerous and ideological policy, we should be talking about how to fix the UK’s broken and patchy palliative care system so everyone can have a dignified death.”

Care Not Killing, Christian Concern and disability groups Not Dead Yet and Distant Voices are planning to attend to oppose change.

Assisted suicide is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

In Scotland, it is not a specific criminal offence but assisting the death of someone can leave a person open to being charged with murder or other offences.

A Bill was introduced in Scotland in March – the third time members of the Scottish Parliament will have considered the issue – with two previous attempts to change the law defeated.

A report by MPs at Westminster in February warned that the Government must consider what to do if the law is changed in part of the UK or on the Isle of Man or Jersey, both of which are crown dependencies and both of which are currently considering the issue.

In a response published on Monday to the Health and Social Care Committee report, the Government said it would discuss with the devolved administrations and crown dependencies “the practical implications for England and Wales of legislation introduced to allow AD/AS (assisted dying/assisted suicide) and any constitutional issues that such legislation may present”.

While the Government said it would “expect the implementation period to allow time for such discussions whilst the necessary regulatory measures are put in place”, committee chairman Steve Brine said “conversations need to start earlier than that”.

Mr Brine will be speaking at the Westminster Hall debate.

Sir Keir Starmer has previously said he is “committed” to allowing a vote on legalising assisted dying should Labour win the general election, while Downing Street has previously said it would be up to Parliament whether to debate legalising assisted dying again.