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A large number of you have been in contact with me about the Assisted Dying Bill which will be debated in the House of Commons on 11 September.

I am very aware of the sincere and strongly-held feelings on both sides of this difficult issue, so I thought it would be helpful to set out my view in some detail.

For a long time I have felt very torn about this. On the one hand, I am resolutely opposed to anything that might lead elderly or disabled people to be pressured by their families or others to bring their lives to an end; that would be wholly wrong. On the other hand, there are a number of cases in which people with terminal illnesses, often very distressing, want to be able to choose the moment of their leaving of this world. Reflecting on my own experience of family members who have been terminally ill, in truth I would have found it very difficult to know what to say to them if they had made such a request.

Sadly, as we know, a number of terminally ill people do take their own lives every year. Morphine, given for wholly compassionate reasons to ease suffering, can have the side effect, in some cases, of hastening death. Treatment is ended where it would make no fundamental difference to the outcome even though it may shorten life. And currently people from the UK can travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives there. It is obviously a matter of their own free choice, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has looked at this issue and decided that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute relatives who help this to happen. I agree with these CPS guidelines because I think it would be wholly wrong to take loving relatives to court in these circumstances, but it is no substitute for Parliament considering the law in this area and reaching a view.

Last summer, in his decision on the Nicklinson case, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said this: “…a system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to die and for his suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way, would, … provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the weak and vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s [Director of Public Prosecutions’] office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself had such a wish, and also to investigate the actions and motives of any assister….”.

Turning now to Rob Marris MP's Bill, as I understand it what it proposes is that a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind should have the choice, with strong safeguards and the alternative of good palliative care, to self-administer medicine to end their own life. The Bill would only cover someone aged 18 or over who was “terminally ill”; ie whose life expectancy was less than 6 months (it would not apply to people with disabilities or people who are depressed or who suffer from dementia). The person would have to be of sound mind and voluntarily (ie with no coercion) sign a declaration that they wish to end their own life. Two doctors and a High Court judge would then have to be satisfied about the requesting patient’s eligibility, and that he or she had made a fully informed decision, before assisted dying would be allowed.  Then, after a 14 day waiting period, a doctor would give the medicine to the patient who would have to take it themselves; no-one else – eg the doctor, spouse or other family member - would be allowed to give them the drug. For me, this is really important as there is no question of someone else administering the drug. And there would be no requirement on any doctor to take part; ie religious belief and conscientious objection would be fully protected.

I realise, of course, that describing the process in this way may appear shocking, but if the law is going to permit this then there must to be full and proper safeguards. Without them, some of the fears about where this might all lead could come to pass, and I do not want that to happen.

Having thought very long and hard about this, my intention is to vote for the Bill at Second Reading so that it can be scrutinised in detail, while continuing to feel some unease. There is, however, no easy answer here either way.

I deeply respect those who for reasons of religious or other conviction are resolutely opposed to such a step, but equally I deeply respect the strongly held view of those who are facing the prospect of their own death to want to be able to determine the timing and the manner of it, surrounded by those who love them and whom they love.


Hilary Benn

 

Assisted Dying

A large number of you have been in contact with me about the Assisted Dying Bill which will be debated in the House of Commons on 11 September.

Many of you have contacted me recently regarding the BMA's 'No More Games' campaign and the six priorities they have set out for the new government.

I agree that the NHS is one of our most vital and valued public services. I also believe that addressing the very serious challenges facing our NHS should be a key priority for the new Government and throughout this Parliament.  It is therefore important, as the BMA's campaign emphasises, that we have an open and honest debate on the future of the NHS.

I am concerned, however, that the current Government do not have the right approach to solve these challenges and that they have put the wrong values - privatisation and competition - at the heart of our NHS. This has hindered sensible collaboration and improvements in NHS services, seen millions spent on competition lawyers and reduced Ministerial accountability.

Indeed, waiting lists are now too long, people are finding it harder and harder to get a GP appointment, Government targets for cancer treatment and A&E waiting times are routinely being missed and social care services are being cut.

Many NHS Trusts are also now facing serious financial deficits - the key driver of which is the spiralling cost of private staffing agencies which hospitals had to turn to following the Government's short-sighted cuts to nurse training. The Government, however, have failed to address this immediate problem and have offered no clarity on how they will pay for their unfunded spending commitments for the end of this Parliament or to roll-out a 'seven day' NHS.

I agree with the BMA's campaign that it is important to have an open debate on healthcare and to strive for a consensus where possible. I also believe it is imperative, though, that MPs and the public continue to hold the Government to account for the decisions they make about our NHS.

Thank you once again for writing to me about the BMA document ‘Securing a Healthier Future for the NHS’ and the 6 priorities. There is no doubt that change is needed to protect the future of our NHS and I can assure you that we are committed to doing just that.

Best wishes

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

 

 

No More Games Campaign - Securing a Healthier Future for the NHS

Many of you have contacted me recently regarding the BMA's 'No More Games' campaign and the six priorities they have set out for the new government.

There has clearly been some confusion about Labour’s position on the Government’s Welfare Bill and what was actually voted on in the House of Commons on 20 July, so it might be helpful if I set out the facts.

The Government drafted the Welfare Bill to lump together things that Labour - and many people - would wholeheartedly support with other policies that we fundamentally oppose. The Tories’ aim was, of course, to try and divide us.

So Labour tabled what is called a 'reasoned amendment'. This is a way of stating which parts of a Bill you oppose and which you support, and our amendment on 20th July - which I voted for - made it clear that we were opposed to giving a second reading to the Welfare Bill because of the parts we disagree with. In effect, therefore we voted against the Bill progressing (a fact largely unreported), but sadly, our amendment was not carried. The Tories have a majority and we cannot defeat them unless Tory MPs vote with us.

The reason we abstained on the subsequent vote was precisely because of the things in the Bill that we do support; ie three million apprenticeships, lower rents for social housing, and more investment in the troubled families programme. It isn’t quite as simple as being against all of the Bill or for all of it.

On the bad things, there are some really terrible policies that will damage not just our community but society too, such as scrapping targets on abolishing child poverty and cuts to funding for people with disabilities or living with cancer or Parkinson's disease or who are declared unfit for work. These I strongly oppose.

There are three more stages that this Bill must now pass through in the House of Commons before it moves to the House of Lords, so there is a long way to go yet.

There has also been confusion about the Tories’ shocking plan to cut tax credits. These proposals are not in the Welfare Bill. They will be introduced later in the year by another parliamentary procedure called a 'statutory instrument' and I will vote against them at that time. The reason why I oppose these cuts to tax credits is that they will make 3 million low and middle income working families – including many families in my constituency - over £1,000 a year worse off on average. That was also why Labour voted against the Budget; George Osborne’s plans are clearly regressive.

On the issue of limiting child tax credits to two children, I am opposed to this as is Andy Burnham who I am supporting for the Labour leadership.

We have now tabled a series of amendments to the Welfare Bill to try and deal with its particular unfairness. These include:

  • preventing the Government from abolishing the targets for reducing child poverty.
  • removing the household benefit cap from people who are responsible for a child under 2 years old, are a carer, or are in temporary accommodation because of domestic violence.
  • new clauses requiring the Secretary of State to report each year on the impact of the household benefit cap, particularly on child poverty, and to review the cap every year, rather than only once in a Parliament.
  • requiring the Social Security Advisory Committee to review the Discretionary Housing Payments fund each year to ensure that sufficient money is available. Discretionary Housing Payments are used to support those who are unfairly affected by the benefit cap.
  • preventing the Bill from restricting Universal Credit for three or subsequent children even when the third child is born before 5 April 2017. 
  • an amendment preventing cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for the WRAG group of around £30 a week. People who are in the WRAG group have been through a rigorous test which has deemed them not fit for work, for example because they have Parkinson’s or are being treated for cancer.
  • an amendment requiring the Government to produce a plan to offset the impact of lower social rents on housing associations. Labour supports the reduction in social housing rents, which will help low-income families and bring down the housing benefits bill. However, we must protect against impacts on the ability of housing associations to build new affordable homes and maintain their existing properties; and
  • an amendment which subjects the four-year benefit freeze to an annual review subject to changes in inflation.

I well understand the frustration that many people feel because we now have a majority Conservative Government which is attacking many of the things we hold dear. I feel that too, but the Labour Party is just as passionate about social justice as it has always been. And can I gently say that having a go at us is no substitute for trying to defeat the Conservatives – who are doing all this - at the next election.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

Labour's Position on the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill

There has clearly been some confusion about Labour’s position on the Government’s Welfare Bill and what was actually voted on in the House of Commons on 20 July, so it...

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