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Bishop of London welcomes MPs’ report on end-of-life care

01 March 2024

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THE Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has welcomed a report by MPs which calls for palliative and end-of-life care to be made more widely available.

The report, on assisted dying, from the cross-party House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, was published on Thursday after an inquiry begun in December 2022.

The report does not state whether the law should change to allow assisted dying: the chair, the Conservative MP Steve Brine, said that the commitee intended the report to be “a significant and useful resource for future debates on the issue”.

It does, however, say that the Government should consider how to respond if another jurisdiction in the UK or Crown dependency legalises assisted dying: it looks “increasingly likely” that Jersey will do so, the report says.

It identifies a common theme in the evidence to the committee: “the pursuit of the very best end of life care, and what many witnesses called ‘a good death’, where the person dying was cared for with compassion and high-quality care and provided with as much agency and choice as possible. However, there is spectrum of views on how to best achieve this.”

Access to and provision of palliative and end-of-life care in the UK is “patchy”, however. The report calls on the Government to “ensure universal coverage of palliative and end of life services, including hospice care at home. It is important that everyone is able to choose what type of support they need at the end of their life, and that their advanced care plan is honoured where possible.”

The Government is also urged to increase funding for hospices.

Responding to the report, Bishop Mullally, who was Chief Nursing Officer for England from 1999 to 2004, said that, during her 20 years in the NHS, she had “witnessed first-hand the critical role that palliative care plays for patients and for their families”. While the UK had “some of the best palliative-care services in the world”, however, “they are currently underfunded and overly reliant on charitable donations.

“This is why I welcome the report’s call for the Government to ensure universal coverage of palliative and end-of-life services, including hospice care at home, and its recommendation that the Government commits to an uplift of funding to guarantee support for hospices in need of financial help. I also welcome the call for better mental-health support for terminally ill people.”

Bishop Mullally also drew attention to the General Synod’s support in 2022 for a private members’ motion that called on the Government to maintain the current law against assisted dying and provide better funding for palliative care (News, 15 July 2022). “This is about offering compassion and direct support for the terminally ill, to ensure the highest possible standard of care for all,” she said.

Speaking on the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, said that the law should not be changed to permit assisted dying. The medical profession should exist to protect life and to care for people, he said. “It is very concerning for us altogether if we are now moving to a place where we wish to advance death rather than life,” he said.

In a statement, the Roman Catholic lead bishop for life issues, the Rt Revd John Sherrington, an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Westminster, welcomed the committee’s decision “not to recommend the legalisation of assisted suicide”.

He continued: “As highlighted in the Committee’s report, experts have noted that there have been major problems in safeguarding the vulnerable and those without full mental capacity when assisted suicide and/or euthanasia has been introduced in other jurisdictions.

“Recognising the distress and suffering of those who are sick and vulnerable, I welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the accessibility and provision of palliative and end of life care needs to be improved — something the Catholic Church has consistently called for.”

In December, Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, said that there were “grounds for changing the law”, and pledged to give Labour MPs a free vote on it (News, 26 January). He said that it would be “appropriate” for it to be dealt with in a Private Member’s Bill rather than a government one.

The campaign group Dignity in Dying reported last week that the Prime Minister had told a campaigner for assisted dying, Matt Ryan, during a meeting in Downing Street: “What the Government has always said, and I would commit to this of course, is if Parliament decided that it wanted to change the law then of course the Government would facilitate doing that in a way that was legally effective.”

A separate statement from Dignity in Dying, responding to the committee’s report, said that evidence to the inquiry had shown “that palliative care is unable to relieve all suffering, with expert witnesses from the hospice sector declaring it would be ‘arrogant’ to claim otherwise. The inquiry heard evidence that the legalisation of assisted dying has brought improvements to end-of-life care in jurisdictions overseas, with no evidence found that such care deteriorates following law change.”

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