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Timms warns Labour not to support assisted dying

25 January 2024

Sir Stephen Timms

Sir Stephen Timms

THE Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms has urged members of his party to give “careful thought” to the issue of assisted dying, arguing against that idea that it might be a party-political matter.

In an article published on the Labour List website on Wednesday, Sir Stephen writes that it is “myth” that support for the legalisation of assisted dying is a left-wing position “in contrast to uncompassionate, reactionary Conservatives who wish to condemn those suffering to undignified deaths”.

Sir Stephen has been Labour MP for East Ham in London since 1994, having first come to the area as part of a Christian mission to the East End while a university student (Interview, 30 July 2021).

He is on record as opposing legislation to introduce assisted dying, saying in a Westminster Hall debate in July 2022: “If we were to legalise assisted dying, we would impose an awful moral dilemma on every conscientious frail person nearing the end of their life. . . If ending their life early were legally permissible, many who do not want to end their life would feel under great, probably irresistible, pressure to do so. There is no way to stop that happening.”

On the Labour List site, he writes that “the radical individualism of some Conservatives” can prompt support for the legalisation of assisted suicide, “even at the risk of dire societal outcomes for the vulnerable. But in my view that should not be the position of those of us on the left.”

And he advises Labour MPs and candidates not to support a free vote on the issue when campaigning in the run up to the next General Election.

“Instead, a prudent response would be to pledge to explore and listen carefully to both sides of the argument and then to vote in whatever way will protect the most vulnerable, while supporting greater investment in palliative and social care,” he writes.

As his evidence, he cites experiences from overseas, writing: “We have more reason to be wary today since the introduction and subsequent rapid expansion of euthanasia in Canada in 2016, and its expansion in recent years in the Netherlands and Belgium to include minors and people with mental illness.

”As the party of the vulnerable, the voiceless and the victim, the stories that have emerged from these countries ought to give us significant pause for thought — data shows that people with disabilities, the poor, and those who fear being a burden to their relatives are all at risk when assisted suicide is permitted, while investing in high-quality palliative care, which is harder to access for the impoverished, can easily be marginalised when assisted suicide is allowed.”

And he points out that various attempts to liberalise the law have been tabled by both Conservative and Labour MPs and peers. All were heavily defeated.

Last month, the leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, said that there were “grounds for changing the law” on assisted dying, and pledged to give Labour MPs a free vote on the issue.

BBC News reported Sir Keir’s remarks, made during a trip to Estonia, in which he described it as “appropriate” for the issue to be dealt with in a Private Member’s Bill rather than in a Bill endorsed by the Government.

In an interview with the Church Times earlier this month, the director of Christians on the Left, Hannah Rich, endorsed Sir Keir’s decision not to whip MPs on the issue (News, 12 January).

In 2015, Sir Keir voted for a Private Member’s Bill to legalise assisted suicide, but it was defeated by a majority of three to one in the House of Commons. Afterwards, the then Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said that he was “heartened” by the outcome (News, 18 September 2015).

In July 2022, the General Synod of the Church of England carried a motion urging the UK Government to maintain the current prohibition against assisted dying, while calling for improvements in palliative care (News, 11 July 2022).

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