Councillors tackle the Assisted Dying Bill

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has decided against making a ‘corporate response’ to the consultation on the proposed ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill and instead authorised the chief executive to submit a response which reflects the variety of views expressed by councillors.

By Peter Urpeth
Thursday, 16th December 2021, 7:39 am
Updated Thursday, 16th December 2021, 7:39 am
The Assisted Dying Bill has been brought forward by Orkney MSP Liam MacArthur
The Assisted Dying Bill has been brought forward by Orkney MSP Liam MacArthur

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur has launched a consultation on the proposed ‘Assisted Dying For Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland)’ Bill, which would “enable competent adults who are terminally ill to be provided, at their request, with assistance to end their lives”.

A report presented to the Comhairle’s policy and resources committee last week confirmed that they had received “a number of representations” calling on them to “express a view” on the Bill. Most were opposed.

The report concluded that the normal practice with proposed legislation of this kind is for the Chief Executive to bring it to the attention of councillors to allow them to make individual comments.

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The initial consultation period on the bill ends on 22 December, and if, subsequently, the Scottish Parliament approve its principles, a fuller consultation will follow.

During the committee debate , Cllr Gordon Murray said it was “a very sensitive issue that needed to be treated sensitively”.

He said the Bill should not be called “assisted dying” but “assisted suicide”, and would be “a voluntary taking of life rather than palliative care, which we should be seeking to improve.”

“My own chief concern, inevitably and regardless of intention is ‘assisted dying, suicide’ puts pressure on people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden to others,” he said.

“As we always pertain to be champions of the elderly, this is a very serious matter and needs serious consideration. If this law was abused, innocent people would die, elderly people would die, for possibly financial reasons.”

Cllr Murray then stated that he would support the submission of a corporate view rejecting the Bill, and felt members should also respond individually to the consultation.

Cllr Finlay Stewart agreed, describing the proposals as “the thin end of a wedge” .

If the Bill was to become law he was concerned that Scotland could see a situation developing similar to that which he said has arisen in Canada, where, he said, from 2023 people would not have to be terminally ill to have this “option," and it could apply to “disabled people, people of old age and people with mental health issues”.

He was concerned doctors would be under a legal obligation to tell patients that assisted dying “was an option for them," and added: “…but I think for the vulnerable people this might become a duty rather than an option.”

Cllr Norrie MacDonald told the meeting that he would be consulting with people in his Sgire an Rubha ward to get a “broad base of opinion”, before submitting a view.

Cllr Roddy Mackay, said that this was a “very, very emotive” issue and said that he would prefer if the Comhairle “didn’t just have a corporate response”. This was something which, “if ever there was a consultation needed to find out what the public want, this is the one they should have the last word on”.

He said the Comhairle “definitely needed” to get the views of the public on before making a response “to put them in a position so that they are the people with the last word.”

Cllr Angus McCormack stated that he wondered if the councillors who had spoken before him at the meeting “had actually sat at someone’s bed and watched them die in pain?”

“It is a very difficult situation and I absolutely 100 per cent agree that there should be an opportunity for people to take the choice to die if they are in considerable pain,” he said.

“I would certainly, had this affected me not so long ago, have gone to every effort to assist my wife to die free from pain. In the event she did.

“This is intended for people who are compos mentis, people who are able to take their own decisions about their lives. It is not about killing old people off, it is not about my daughter killing me for my money, that’s really what Gordon [Cllr Murray] is alluding to. That is not what this is about at all. This is about allowing people who are perfectly sane, who have assessed their situation and realise that for the rest of their life they are going to be living in serious pain and they want to do something about it. “

Cllr McCormack concluded: “I think they should have the right to do that, and I think this council should be saying people should have the right to do that.

Cllr Alasdair Macleod said: “I personally agree that we should consult with the public at large. We have people at both ends of the spectrum and this has been debated for years and years.

“Personally I’m against it because I think it is the thin end of the wedge, but when making our personal experiences it’s an entirely different perspective on the matter entirely, so it is not an easy kind of debate at all, but I think we should submit a corporate response taking into account the views of the whole community.”

Cllr Kenny John MacLeod said he was not in favour “from my faith point of view” and was concerned it was “distracting the focus” away from end-of- life and palliative care measures which had made “great advances over the recent years”.

He added: “In the vast majority of cases people are supported at that end- of-life with fantastic care locally, particularly, and many of us have experience of that”. He said the Bill was “not enabling us to look at the broad picture of the support that can and is being offered on a day-to-day basis and the need to make sure that that support is at appropriate levels locally and nationally, and that there is a proper program in place to make sure that is the case”.

He had not received any representations on the issue and was concerned that if the Comhairle was to “to provide a council view it might be quite difficult to determine what that view is”.

Comhairle Leader, Cllr Roddie Mackay said that he personally “wouldn't be able to support” the Bill, and said it would be more effective for councillors to make their own representations after they had consulted with their communities.

Cllr Donald Manford said was concerned over sufficient “safeguards” but added that he didn’t think the Comhairle should make a corporate response at this time because that may not be a “consistent view for a whole host of reasons”.

Nick Fayers, Chief Officer of the Western Isles Integration Joint Board said that if there was going to be a consultation that should include the views of the local Palliative Care Teams and also suggested that the Comhairle should look to the experience of other European countries in relation to the legislation.

Comhairle convenor, Norman A MacDonald, said that he was not in favour of the proposals.

“The medical profession are the ones who recognise when somebody is in severe pain and they moderate that pain and generally, for certain categories of people who have a very clear terminal illness, it’s usually that they let that go until it is inevitable what is going to happen,” he said.

“Sometimes people could be in a position where they can't even drink water for a week before they pass away and yet they're still comfortable in their own surroundings with their family around, and certainly I wouldn't be supporting this.”

Cllr John MacKay expressed concern that if the legislation was passed it would leave people “open to abuse the system”.

He said that he had had experience in his own family of somebody dying with Motor Neurone Disease and said that it was “very, very difficult to see people fading away in front of you”, and concluded: “…but still, the Lord gave us life and the Lord shall take it away, and I think we should leave it at that and not to leave it in the hands of men.”

Cllr Gordon Murray felt the Comhairle would be “abdicating” its responsibility if they didn’t “tell our public how we feel about this.”

Cllr Calum Maclean, Loch-a-Tuath, said that he found the title of the Bill misleading. He said it “gives the impression that this refers to palliative to care. It is nothing of the kind…”

The Leader then thanked those who had contributed to the debate for their “very sensitive sharing of very sensitive experiences,” and said that he appreciated the “seriousness with which we've treated this subject," adding he “didn’t want it to descend into some argument about whether we present it in a particular way or other.”

Councillors then backed the recommendation to present the views expressed at the meeting as a response to the consultation, and with the opportunity for councillors to make further comments to the Chief Executive before the deadline, with the draft response being circulated to members of the committee before being submitted.