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CPS chief to give evidence to new assisted suicide commission

1 December 2010

Keir Starmer QC is one of a dozen high-profile figures due to give evidence to a new commission set up to consider change to assisted suicide laws.

The Commission on Assisted Dying, set up under the aegis of think tank Demos and funded by businessman Bernard Lewis and science fiction author Sir Terry Pratchett, will review the state of the law and make proposals for reform.

In addition to the director of public prosecutions, key witnesses will include Debbie Purdy, the MS sufferer whose victory in the House of Lords last year led to the publication of an offence-specific prosecution policy, Lord Joffe, whose assisted dying bill was rejected in the Lords in 2007, and Baroness Finlay, professor of palliative care who has objected to the legalisation of assisted dying when it was last proposed in the Lords.

Philosopher Mary Warnock, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Peter Saunders, of Care Not Killing, and Alison Davis, of No Less Human, have also been invited to give evidence.

The commission is chaired by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, whose 'Purdy amendment' to the coroners and justice bill proposed to legalise accompanying a terminally-ill person to a country where assisted suicide is lawful. The peers voted 194/139 against the change.

The purpose of the commission is to hear evidence, consider all the relevant material and then to write and report, addressing the issue of whether there needs to be a change of approach to the issue of assisted dying, and making recommendations as to what, if any, changes of the law and practice should be implemented.

Lord Falconer said the commission would “come up with a report of quality which will be respected as an objective, dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the issues and as providing a reliable way forward.”

He added: “The issue needs calm and measured work to look at the facts about how people die, about how people presently do die, about how decisions regarding the very end of live are currently made in the UK, about experience in other countries, about public opinion, about what the effect of leaving the law as it is, and the likely effect of changing it, would be.”

The assisted suicide prosecution guidelines published in February attach particular importance to whether the defendant was set to benefit from the death of the victim.

Campaigners welcomed the move at the time but remain concerned that they do not provide the certainty a clear change in the law would bring.

Of the 150 or so Britons who have traveled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich none have been prosecuted.

The members of the Commission on Assisted Dying are:

  • Lord Charles Falconer, chair barrister and senior counsel based in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s London office. Former Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice in the Blair government.
  • Professor Sam Ahmedzai, professor of palliative medicine and head of the Academic Unit of Supportive Care at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Sheffield.
  • Lord (Ian) Blair of Boughton crossbench peer and former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
  • Sir Graeme Catto, chairman of the Scottish Stem Cell Network, chairman of the Better Regulation Group, Universities UK, and former president of the General Medical Council.
  • Dr Carole Dacombe, medical director, St Peter’s Hospice.
  • Dr Stephen Duckworth, founder and chief executive of disability matters limited and strategic development director of Serco’s ‘Welfare to Work’ programme.
  • Celia Grandison-Markey Nurse and Education and Management Consultant for health and social care in the Public Sector.
  • Penny Mordaunt MP Conservative member of parliament for Portsmouth North.
  • Baroness Elaine Murphy of Aldgate Independent (crossbench) life peer, secretary to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health and a vice-president of the Alzheimer’s Society.
  • Dame Denise Platt DBE, member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
  • The Reverend Canon Dr James Woodward, Anglican priest and Canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
  • Baroness Barbara Young of Old Scone life peer in the House of Lords and chancellor of Cranfield University.

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