Crossbench peer and former paralympic athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson has become a key voice in opposition to the assisted dying bill. Photo: Getty
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Tanni Grey-Thompson on assisted dying: “People come up to me and say ‘I wouldn’t want to live if I was like you’”

The crossbench peer talks to Frances Ryan about the debate surrounding the UK’s first piece of legislation to address the right-to-die, and her concerns that it will put pressure on vulnerable people to “take the next step”.

“We’ve never spoken in this debate about ‘the cost of someone’s life’ but to me it feels like it’s bubbling under the surface,” Tanni Grey-Thompson tells me, watching her daughter tussle a bag of chocolate in a Nottingham café. “If I thought my life was a burden on my family, I think I’d be encouraged to think about it.”

The Assisted Dying Bill will receive its second reading in the House of Lords this week, with an unprecedented number of peers – 110 so far – set to debate it. It isn’t difficult to see why Grey-Thompson, who has sat as a crossbench peer since 2010, describes it to me as “probably the most emotionally charged issue I’ve seen in the Lords”. If made law, it would see the country’s first piece of legislation to address the right-to-die: terminally ill patients who are of mental competence and “settled intention” with six months or less to live would be able to self-administer a prescribed fatal dose of drugs.

The run up to the debate is seeing predictably strong rhetoric on both sides, with Justin Welby dubbing the Bill “mistaken and dangerous” after former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey offered his support this weekend. The British Medical Journal, in contrast, has joined supporters calling for an end to “prolonged suffering”, writing in an editorial: “People should be able to exercise choice over their lives, which should include how and when they die, when death is imminent.”

It’s a term Grey-Thompson isn’t convinced about. 

“Choice is a word that’s frequently used in this debate but there’s a very fine line between genuine choice and people making the decision that they feel they should to help other people,” she tells me. “I could see why at a really low point in your life, you could think that was the only choice you have. If this law gets through, we’ll never know how many people will have been forced or encouraged to do it. It might be none. But I’d like the data to prove that, and the danger is that it’ll no longer be measured.”

Grey-Thompson has become a key voice in opposition to the Bill. Last month, she was among a group of peers and campaigners who signed a letter to the Telegraph stating their concern that it would see vulnerable disabled elderly people treated as if their lives are “worth” less than those of everyone else.

“I think it’ll always be difficult to create legislation in this area that’ll protect vulnerable people,” she tells me. “We can say it’s about individual decisions but I’m not sure it’s that easy. That individual’s affected by everyone around them, whether they think they’re a burden, or a hindrance, or they’re not getting the care they want but don’t feel like they can say anything. With the welfare cuts, people are really worried about their care.”

“Someone got in touch with me recently, saying their local authority have told them their care’s too expensive so it’s been suggested to them they might want to move into an old people’s home,” she adds. “They’re early fifties.” 

Lord Falconer’s Bill is clear in that the law would only apply to individuals who are terminally ill but, from the outset, the question over disability’s inclusion – and what introducing a right-to-die would mean for disabled people – has been a key feature of the debate.  

“We have this debate, we say it isn’t about disabled people, but a lot of people with a terminal illness do have some form of impairment,” she says. “I’m not sure the public is always able to differentiate between someone who’s terminally ill and someone who’s disabled.”

“It’s really hard for lots and lots of disabled people at the minute. You look at the news coverage and it’s about ‘scroungers’, people sucking money out the state, how we can’t afford the NHS. . . The next step is ‘we get rid of people who cost too much’. That absolutely isn’t what Faulkner’s Bill is about but it’s interlinked to me, really.”

What we discuss reflects a fear amongst some disabled people that, at a time of severe cuts to disability support, the conversation is being shifted away from how to provide a quality of life. Dubbed ‘Stop it before it starts!’, Disabled People Against Cuts are planning a protest outside the House of Lords during Friday’s debate. Yet at the same time, there are others pushing for clarification over their right to die. Last month, in a high profile case, two disabled campaigners – Paul Lamb and the family of the late “locked-in syndrome” sufferer Tony Nicklinson – lost their battle at the Supreme Court.

“There’ll always be these awful, tragic cases. But if you move the line [with this Bill], you might open it up to a whole other host of people who might be vulnerable,” Grey-Thompson says, carefully. “I do worry about the next step. This won’t be it. In Belgium, if one parent wants it, and the child requests it, it can be done, even if they’re not terminally ill. Supporters in other countries didn’t get what they wanted through first time but have nudged it and nudged it and nudged it.”

Grey-Thompson, now 44, was born with spina bifida and, after a Paralympic career totaling eleven golds, has gone on to be one of the country’s few, visible disabled politicians. I ask her if she thinks this has had an impact on her position.

“I am affected by my own personal experience,” she says. “I’m fairly frequently told ‘It must be horrible being like you’. People come up to me and say ‘I wouldn’t want to live if I was like you’. And I say ‘Actually, my life’s pretty good.’ What do you think of the rest of the disabled population?’”

“It sounds superficial but. . . Coming here today, parking in the Blue badge space, someone glared at me until my daughter got my wheelchair out,” she says, looking to the glass doors leading to the car park. “Even around stuff like that there’s a lot of anger and distrust. At a time when you’re making cuts, I think people turn in on themselves.”

“You know, it’s really complicated. It’s hard,” she says. “I watched my mum and my dad die. With my dad, I wanted him to be pain free, for him not to suffer and there was a point we agreed future help wouldn’t be useful. But I would never have wanted him to take the next step.”

“There’s a lot we need to do to look seriously at palliative care and end of life support to make sure that this is right for people. No one likes talking about death.

The Assisted Dying Bill means we are at least starting to have the conversation.

 

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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