David Gauke: Compassion favours allowing a right to die

25 Oct

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.

Luke de Pulford: The UK has failed to stand up to China – and Raab must ensure that it does

7 Jan

Luke de Pulford is Coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and sits on the Conservative party Human Rights Commission.

I like Dominic Raab – really, I do. In 18 months as Foreign Secretary he has delivered more legacy defining policies than most. A sanctions regime to punish human rights abusers. A generous immigration scheme for Hong Kongers. There’s a lot to admire, especially when you consider these policies had to be smashed through the famously resistant blob that is the Foreign Office.

Which is why I can’t understand what he seems to be doing now – especially given his background. According to Government insiders, Raab is blocking efforts to give UK courts the power to hear cases of genocide – something the Uyghur people desperately need and deserve.

Let me back up a bit. In December the House of Lords debated an all-party amendment which would stop the UK offering cushy trade deals to genocidal states. Though the amendment doesn’t mention any country, China’s anti-Uyghur atrocities were clearly the motivation. Truth be told, if this amendment were to become law, it won’t have much impact on trade at all. As the Government keeps saying, the UK has “no plans to commence free trade negotiations with China”. So a law saying we can’t offer Myanmar or China special tariffs isn’t much skin off the Government’s nose.

The big deal about this amendment is that it would allow UK courts to rule on whether or not a state had committed genocide. Until now this has been a privilege reserved to international courts, which take a ridiculously long time and which can’t act at all if someone brandishes their Security Council veto. Turkeys don’t tend to vote for Christmas, so the likelihood of China allowing themselves to be tried for their anti-Uyghur atrocities is…putting it generously…remote.

This obviously isn’t good enough. Aside from failing Uyghurs, it’s a far cry from the treaty we signed, forged in the shadow of the Holocaust: to “prevent and punish” a repeat of those horrors. Given that the UK refuses to use the word genocide, unless there has been a formal court ruling – and consequently refuses to engage with its duties under the Genocide Convention – this is a problem that needs solving. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s a completely inoperable, wrong-headed and immoral policy which cynics might speculate was designed to achieve precisely the inertia it has brought about.

The House of Lords agreed and passed the amendment with a whacking majority of 126, including a considerable Tory rebellion of former chief whips like David Maclean and former cabinet ministers like Lord Forsyth, Eric Pickles and others. “Lords say ‘No Deal’ to Genocide Countries” as a tabloid had it.

This clearly spooked the Government which is rallying hard in the Commons to kill off the proposal, deploying the usual excuses about how this isn’t the right bill, and isn’t the right time – the kind of parliamentary tactics which only work on those who haven’t been around long enough to have heard them many times before.

From Daniel Finkelstein’s piece yesterday in The Times you’d think nothing was wrong with the Government’s approach. Everything’s fine! Except our treaty promises to Hong Kong lie in tatters, no meaningful steps have been taken to help Uyghurs by engaging with our obligations under the Genocide Convention, no sanctions have been imposed on Xi Jinping’s enforcers after at least a year of asking (it took a week for Belarus), no economic sanctions have been imposed upon China, no commitment has been made to reduce Britain’s strategic dependency on China, no commitment to close Confucius Institutes, nothing about Tibet, no action on state-sponsored organ trafficking, nothing about Inner Mongolia, and so on and so on.

The weird thing is that the Government always knew it was going to be in for a rough time with this one. But ministers haven’t come to the table. Normally, when presented with trouble from the back benches, they negotiate. Sometimes they even take the proposal on themselves, which allows them to control and adapt it. In this case the government was having none of it. They whipped against heavily in the Lords, and are expected to do the same in the Lower House.

Why? Well, the obstruction is said to be Raab himself – apparently worried this will upset the UN, or something. Even weirder: Liz Truss is apparently in favour of the idea and it’s her bill. So here we have a Foreign Secretary – who really has been courageous on human rights – moving to block an amendment that would give Uyghurs their day in court on a bill that isn’t even his responsibility.

I hope you’re scratching your head, because those of us involved in the campaign can’t make sense of it. The most likely explanation is that the current Foreign Secretary used to be a Foreign Office lawyer – the standard bearers for the “computer says no” division of Whitehall. And, as I’ve hinted above and written about before, it is long-standing UK policy that “the question of whether or not genocide has occurred is a matter for the international judicial system”.

In policy terms, this is positively prehistoric – Douglas-Home was the first Foreign Secretary to deploy a version of the line in 1971. Perhaps old habits die hard, and overturning this deeply embedded piece of Foreign Office obfuscation is proving too much for a man whose fledgling career was weened on it.

Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit out of character. The UN genocide system is broken and needs a shot in the arm from a country willing to stand and be counted. It’s hard to imagine a foreign secretary better suited to doing it. If only he would.