Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Pass the Sick Bag

In a week when the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has been decrying the politics of image and spin I was amused to come across this awful 'puff piece' in the Huffington Post which asks, rather breathlessly: Could Ed's Wife Turn Out To be His 'Secret Weapon'?

Now I didn't actually finish reading this nonsense, full as it is of 'striking images' of the lovely couple, which is written by Mehdi Hasan who has also penned a glowing biography of Ed Miliband.

So if Mehdi's latest offering is anything to go by, I think we'll all have to wait a little while longer for the politics of spin to come to an end.

Justine Miliband Profile: Could Ed's Wife Turn Out To Be His 'Secret Weapon'?

By Mehdi Hasan - Huffington Post

At a recent summer drinks party for high-profile Labour supporters, it wasn't Ed Miliband's speech that wowed the crowd. It was his wife's.

"I am trying to change the world through the law," Justine Thornton, aka Mrs Miliband, told the assembled luminaries in the sun-lit courtyard of Mary Ward House in central London.

Her speech was a combination of charming tributes to her husband, passionate declamations on the need to change the way politics is conducted and, of course, the obligatory, self-deprecating anecdotes about life as a political leader's wife. Thornton, a Cambridge-educated barrister, told an amusing story about how she and her husband, only a few weeks ago, had been frantically trying to find a bottle of wine in their kitchen to serve to a surprise house guest, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who just happens to be the prime minister of Denmark (as well as the wife of Labour parliamentary candidate Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil). "It was more Fawlty Towers than Borgen," she deadpanned.

Members of the audience, which included actor Ross Kemp, TV presenter Fiona Phillips and Hollywood director Paul Greengrass, later described her address - delivered, like a true Miliband, without notes - as "inspirational","from the heart" and "pack[ing] a punch".

It hasn't been easy for Thornton to play the part that is expected of her by politicians and pundits alike. Shortly after Miliband won the leadership of his party, Thornton logged onto Amazon to look for books that might help her adapt to her new role. But all her searches produced were links to DVD box sets of the hit US legal drama, 'The Good Wife'.

The role of politician's wife is "not a role I applied for, darling," she said, turning to grin at her husband who watched on with a mix of awe and pride. Nevertheless, Thornton continued, she intended to be at his side throughout the election campaign, ready to help take on her husband's vast army of doubters, critics and opponents.

Ten months out from the general election, and with Labour's poll lead narrowing, Miliband needs all the assistance he can get - and from every possible quarter. In recent weeks, the Leader of the Opposition has been battered over his image, with polls showing voters think he is "weird" and fellow Labour MPs, such as the former home secretary Alan Johnson, claiming to find little warmth or enthusiasm for him on the doorstep. Then there was the indignity of being photographed trying - and failing - to eat a bacon sandwich for breakfast, as well as his bizarre decision to pose for the cameras alongside a copy of The Sun.

In contrast, standing next to his wife, on the courtyard steps at Mary Ward House, Miliband looked relaxed, personable.. normal. Over the next few months, according to senior Labour sources, we will start to see the confident and self-assured Thornton emerge from the shadows; we will see Ed and Justine together in public, at events, on the campaign trail, in the media. Her chief task, they whisper, will be to humanise him, to anchor him in the "real world", not the "wonk world".

So, could Mrs Miliband be the Labour leader's secret weapon?

Born in 1970 in Manchester but raised in Nottingham, Justine Thornton attended local comprehensive West Bridgford School, where former pupils include the Oscar-nominated British actress Samantha Morton.

Thornton herself had the acting bug and came to public attention as a teenage actor appearing in the Central Television drama 'Hardwicke House'. She played rebellious schoolgirl Erica who called Geoffrey Howe, then Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary, a "fascist" in the pilot show, though the series was soon cancelled after a public outcry over its "comic violence and portrayal of dysfunctional pupils," according to the Daily Telegraph.
A teenaged Thornton played wild child Erica on ITV's 'Hardwicke House'

Thornton also starred in ITV's 'Dramarama', before starting to lose interest in acting. Ferociously intelligent, the teenaged Thornton wanted to focus on her academic career.

She achieved straight As in her maths, English and history A-levels and secured a place at Robinson College, Cambridge, where she read law. Graduating in 1992, Thornton was called to the bar two years later where she met, and struck up a friendship with, Frances Osborne - now the wife of the chancellor - with whom she went backpacking across South America. (“I’m immensely fond of Justine,” Osborne told the Times in 2012, adding that the two women were part of a "common gang" of MPs' spouses.)

In 2004, Thornton met Miliband at a dinner party in London. The Labour Party special adviser, who had only just returned from a two-year sabbatical at Harvard University, struck up a conversation with the sharp, witty and attractive lawyer and the two hit it off. It was a meeting of minds - a friend of Justine's once described to me the latter's excitement after meeting Miliband as "gosh how fascinating, he's really clever" rather than "gosh how handsome".

In a speech to Labour activists in 2013, Thornton herself recalled how it was local Labour activists in Doncaster, from where Miliband was trying to get elected in 2005, who first guessed that she and the Labour candidate had fallen for each other. Thornton said she had travelled up from London to Doncaster to help Miliband set up for a party meeting when an activist said to her: "That's a very long way to come to move chairs, are you sure you're just friends?" According to Thornton, the activist was "clearly very astute and realised before we did I think."

Miliband himself told Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' in 2013 that the reason he was such a fan of the Robbie Williams song 'Angels' was because he had realised he was in love with Thornton while the pair watched Williams sing it live on stage during the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in July 2005.

Was it Robbie Williams who brought Ed and Justine together?

For Miliband, a former special adviser to Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman, who had been raised in the über-ideological home of a high-profile Marxist academic, Thornton was a breath of fresh air. She brought some much-needed fun and colour to his serious, politics and policy-obsessed life - and, by all accounts, still does.

Friends of the Labour leader's wife speak, for instance, of her "sense of adventure". In 2005, only a few months after she started dating Miliband, Thornton joined a friend and fellow barrister, Quincy Whittaker, on a climb up the 4,167-metre Mount Toubkal in Morocco - the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. Later, when Whitaker suggested they visit India, Thornton proposed they go "via Afghanistan".

Nevertheless, the adventurous Thornton has also had to do much of the heavy lifting in her relationship with Miliband, distracted (obsessed?) as the latter is by the all-consuming worlds of politics and government.

When the pair combined their financial resources to buy their north London townhouse for £1.6million in 2009, it was Thornton's name, and not Miliband's, that went on the property deed.

When their first child Daniel was born in 2009, Thornton registered the birth but wasn't able to add both parents' names because they weren't married. Miliband, it later turned out, was "too busy" to get round to going to the registry office in person and adding his name to the certificate.

He was also, it seems, "too busy" to get married to Thornton, becoming the first unmarried man to become leader of the Labour Party in September 2010.

In May 2011, the couple finally married in a small, very private ceremony, and with an emotional Miliband reducing his new wife to tears by telling hershe was his "rock" and "the most beautiful, generous and kind person that I've ever met in my life".

Miliband described Thornton as his "rock" at their wedding in 2011

When the time came for her own speech, Thornton told guests at the wedding: "When I was growing up I thought when I was 30 I would be married and have two kids. It might be a decade late but it was worth the wait for Ed."

It is, in a sense, remarkable that we have so seen so little of the eloquent and charming Thornton over the past four years. She is on the radar of only a handful of journalists; few members of the public would be able to identify her if shown a picture of the Labour leader's wife.

Yet, in an age of 24-hour news channels and live blogs, politicians' spouses tend to find themselves under greater scrutiny than ever before. The high-powered careers of Thornton (environmental barrister), Samantha Cameron (former business executive) and Miriam González Durántez (City lawyer) help explain some of the interest - but equally explain why the wives themselves are so uninterested in playing ball with journalists and prefer to adopt lower profiles.

It is difficult to overstate the importance that Thornton gives to her own job, as a high-flying barrister specialising in environmental law. In an interview with Grazia magazine in 2012, Miliband joked that his wife considers him the third most important thing in her life, behind their two sons and her legal career.

"She works at one of the country's most eminent chambers," says a member of the shadow cabinet, pointing to her position at Thirty Nine Essex Street, where she is believed to earn around £200,000 a year - compared to Miliband's £130,000 salary as leader of the opposition . "She's very impressive."

Leading legal directories such as Chambers & Partners and Legal 500 agree with the shadow minister's assessment, regularly referring to Thornton as, among other things, "very calm, focused and knowledgeable", "extremely bright [and] hardworking", a "first-class" advocate who "shows considerable attention to detail, commitment to the cause and great knowledge".

As the partner of a top politician, however, she has had to pick her cases with care. In March 2009, when Miliband was energy and climate change secretary in the Gordon Brown government, Thornton found herself embroiled in a 'conflict of interest' row when it emerged that she was representing energy company E.ON as it tried to win the right to build a series of coal and nuclear powered stations worth more than £20 billion. A departmental spokesman for Miliband was forced to remind the press that Thornton had not "acted for or against the department and will not receive or accept any such work in the future".

Perhaps, then, it is unfair to say she has put her career ahead of his. Indeed Miliband has said that his wife often jokes with him that she could have had "an easy life married to somebody else but it would have been a less interesting life".

A working mum, Thornton tells friends she values her privacy and, especially, the privacy of her kids - though the Labour leader's wife has, on occasion, agreed to do photo shoots with Daniel, aged 5, and Samuel, aged 3. She is still feeling her way towards an appropriate and - the cynics would say - mutually-beneficial relationship with the the press corps.
The Miliband kids aren't always off limits to the media

Can we expect her to see her pop up on the 'This Morning' couch or on the 'Loose Women' panel in the run-up to the general election next May? Maybe. Or she might, alternatively, decide to turn up on the Andrew Marr show or the Today programme to talk about the environment or the law.

"She will do her own thing, she won't be SamCam or Cherie," says a senior Labour source. "Justine is her own woman."

"I think she could do more media, but not just as a wife," adds a shadow cabinet minister. " She has strong views; she's an independent-minded woman."

The big question, though, is this: will Thornton be able to help Miliband revive his plummeting poll ratings?

According to a member of the Labour leader's inner circle, the comprehensive-educated Thornton, with her non-political, provincial background, "roots him in real life". She "connects Ed to the best part of himself," says the source.

In internal discussions, party strategists are said to refer to Thornton as "the best validator and authenticator" of Miliband and his 'One Nation', pro-'squeezed middle' message.

Those same strategists have secretly planned a bigger role for Thornton in the run-up to the general election - both during the Scottish referendum campaign over the summer and, in particular, at the party's annual conference in Manchester in September.
Will Thornton go from giving a kiss to giving a speech at the next Labour conference?

So far, all three leaders' wives have consistently refused to introduce their husbands at party conference, despite Sarah Brown having famously introduced husband Gordon at the Labour conference in 2009 as "my hero".

At Labour's conference in Brighton in 2013, Miliband told a TV interviewerthat Thornton "has got a full-time job.. we are not bringing her on to introduce me at conference, I can assure you of that".

Whether he will make the same assurance this time round is another matter. Speculation is rife amongst some senior Labour figures that Thornton could give a 'game-changing' speech to introduce Miliband at this year's annual conference in September - the last such conference before the general election next May.

If Thornton does decide to speak ahead of Miliband in Manchester, as she did in Mary Ward House, she'll eschew corniness. "That's not Justine's style," says a member of the shadow cabinet. "The [Sarah Brown] 'hero' stuff was awful."

As an indication of how seriously Thornton takes her (rare) public appearances, it is worth recalling the irritated remark she made to a group of Labour supporters in Brighton last year. "All you'll know about me this year is the make of the dress I wear for Ed's speech on Tuesday," she told Young Labour activists. "I am in fact more than a dress."

Sceptics suggest 'upgrading' Thornton's role, and giving her a bigger profile, either at conference or on the campaign trail, will have little effect on the result of the next election. Pollster Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov, tells me that "wives (and husbands) have little impact on the fortunes of political leaders, in Britain anyway". Kellner adds: "Two wives who had a positive image were, and are, Glenys Kinnock and Sarah Brown. They may have enhanced their husband's standing inside their own party; but as neither of their husbands won an election, it's hard to sustain the argument that they were vote winners."

Perhaps. But even if Thornton's only contribution in the coming months is to help Miliband get permission to be heard - as a normal, middle-class family man, 'rooted in real life', rather than as a weird, out-of-touch wonk, rooted in Westminster - Labour strategists will conclude that it will have been worth it.

And, as Damien Lyons Lowe, of the polling firm Survation, says: "If Ed Miliband presented himself more as a family man, a father, a husband - sending signals of someone in touch with life outside of politics, it's possible this could improve his personal ratings."

It would be a mistake to underestimate Thornton's commitment to the Miliband - and, by extension, Labour - cause. She is, in fact, as quietly ruthless and steely as her husband. During the leadership campaign in 2010, Thornton is reported to have told friends that she was more worried about her partner's political prospects, than his sibling rivalry with David: "Ed has to win it, and then we can sort that out."

Miliband refers to her as his "best counsel", and speaking to friends of both the Labour leader and his wife (then girlfriend) for our biography of him in 2011, my co-author James Macintyre and I discovered just how much of a "rock" Thornton is for Miliband. She advises, supports, bolsters, cheerleads. All of Miliband's big political moves - from his decision to challenge brother David for the party leadership in 2010 to his decision to challenge the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre over the legacy of his late father Ralph in 2013 - have been made only after long and intense discussions with Thornton. ("Life's an adventure," she is said to have replied, when Miliband asked her whether he should run for leader, "and you've got to seize the day.")

One friend of both Ed and Justine has talked about "their strikingly consensual relationship.. It is so equal: neither dominates at all." Other friends who we spoke to for our biography described Thornton as, among other things, "a great political wife, because while everyone is talking she just gets on with things"; a partner who "is engaged with [Miliband's] political life but easily his greatest refuge from it too"; and the person who "encourages him to trust his instincts".

Thornton, according to a shadow minister who has known the couple of several years, is very much on the centre-left and a keen supporter of Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda. "She's a political soulmate," says the shadow minister.
Thornton is the Labour leader's 'political soulmate', says a shadow minister

She also keeps him "grounded", to quote one of Miliband's former girlfriends, and is a reminder to the public that the Labour leader isn't just a professional politician, a wonk who obsesses over inequality and redistribution. He happens to be a proud husband and father too; Miliband has a wife and two kids who love and adore him as a person, not as a politician.

Normality is the keyword. "While Glenys at least was a political activist," Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, once reminded me, "Justine just has a totally normal background."

Will her "normal background" aid and abet the Leader of the Opposition in his mission to convince sceptical voters that he is on their side, understands their concerns and plans to fight on their behalf - if, that is, they decide to put him (and his wife) in Number 10 next May?

Over the next 10 months, Thornton will be on the campaign trail and will be speaking out much more often - regardless of how many critical pieces the the tabloids decide to run on her clothing or her career. "She regards it as a price she has to pay in order for Ed to do what he has to do," says a friend. Another adds: "She is not going to buckle no matter how difficult this gets."

Unlike a growing number of Labour MPs, Thornton believes in her husband - and believes he will win. She is convincned - as evidenced by her occasional public statements, as well as from the testimony of her friends and her husband's friends - that only Miliband can bring about radical change in the way the country is run.

Wrapping up her speech at Mary Ward House, Thornton said she and her husband wanted to make the next election about the need for "decency and principles in public life".

"That's why I am up for a fight," she told the crowd, "however nasty, however brutal."

NLC Feedback

A number of readers from North Lanarkshire have been in touch with concerns about some ongoing local issues.

Apparently, the Council is continuing to employ Home Care Workers on different rates of pay even though the staff concerned are all doing ostensibly the same job.

"So what's all this about?", people are asking.

Now the honest answer is I don't know because it does seem decidedly odd and virtually impossible to justify if you ask me, so what I would do is write directly to the Council's Head of Human Resources (Iris Wylie) and ask for a proper explanation.

I believe Iris Wylie's email address at NLC is:wyliei@northlan.gov.uk

The next concern has to do with Freedom of Information because back in May union members were encouraged by their unions to raise FoI requests with North Lanarkshire Council - which the Council has still to answer after all this time.

The Council is now telling people that they no longer need to answer these FoI requests because of ongoing discussions with the trade unions, but I don't think they are entitled to behave in this way under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 which lays down strict time limits for public bodies like NLC to respond.

Now I have no idea why the Council appears to be speaking for the unions and their members, but what I would do is to bang in an FoI Review Request which will force the Council to reply properly, because otherwise the matter can be appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

And North Lanarkshire Council won't like that, I can tell you.

The final matter is the case of the recent trade union ballot on interim changes to the Council JES and pay arrangements that flow from the JES.

Different versions about the result of the ballot are doing the rounds apparently, but union members are entitled to know the details of the turnout and number of votes cast For and Against - and in my view this information ought to be published as a matter of routine.

So if I were a union member in NLC I would drop a note to my union to ask the following questions:      
  1. How many ballot papers were issued in total?
  2. How many people voted Yes?
  3. How many people voted No?
Now as regular readers know, I think this whole ballot business is a joke because the unions' attention should be focused on getting all the equal pay claims resolved before agreeing to any further changes to the Job Evaluation Scheme or people's pay arrangements.

Repeat Offenders

Image result for repeat offenders + images

If I understand the following report from Sky News correctly, Ashley Lindo served just 18 months of a 3-year prison sentence after killing an eight-year-old child while driving a stolen car.

Not only that, he is a serial offender with a string of 22 offences under his belt including another dangerous driving conviction three years after he had killed the the little boy, but that didn't stop his defence lawyer from explaining Lindo's behaviour away as 'panic' and arguing that his client had turned over a new leaf since becoming a father just six weeks ago.

Now all of that seems quite unbelievable to me given the background of this young man and unless I'm missing something, he will be back out the streets again in 9 months time to so to resume his criminal career.        

Killer Joyrider Lindo Jailed Again After Chase

The 24-year-old raced at up to 40mph on a path behind a school as he fled police and kept going even after blowing out his tyres.

Ashley Lindo, pictured in 2006

A man who ran over and killed an eight-year-old boy in 2006 is back behind bars after racing through a residential area in a police chase.

Ashley Lindo reached up to 60mph as he drove along paths, blew out two tyres and pulled a handbrake turn.

The 24-year-old was jailed for 18 months at Teesside Crown Court after admitting dangerous driving, driving while disqualified and driving without insurance.

The court heard how Lindo pretended to stop for police in Middlesbrough but then sped off when an officer got out to speak to him.

The pursuit took place at 6.30pm on April 12 this year.

Prosecutor Sue Jacobs said he drove the Skoda Octavia up kerbs and between bollards and on a footpath behind a school.

When police blocked his path he mounted a kerb and blew out two tyres.

He was finally forced to ditch the car after they went completely flat, about a mile after the chase began. He ran off but was arrested soon after.

Lindo served half of a three-year sentence in a young offenders' institution after he knocked down Daniel Conroy Curtin in a stolen Rover Metro in May 2006.

The prosecution in the latest case said: "It is clearly aggravated by his previous convictions, the time of day and the locations, as it involved residential streets in central Middlesbrough."

The court also heard that Lindo had 11 convictions for 22 offences, including another dangerous driving offence three years after he killed the little boy.

Lindo's defence lawyer, Gary Wood, said his client had "panicked" and added that his outlook on life had changed "dramatically" since becoming a father six weeks ago.

"Give me a break"

Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, does an effective job of mocking Ed Miliband's vacuous speech about the need for politics to inject more substance and rely less spin and image.

To be expected from a political opponent for sure, but Boris shows he can speak a bit of 'Franglais' as well as Latin with his memorable line: "donned moi un break".    

Ed 'Wallace' Miliband's problem is that he's wearing the wrong trousers

Ed Miliband is right that policies, not image, are what counts, but his ideas add up to nothing

By Boris Johnson - The Telegraph

By ’eck Wallace, is that it? Is that the best you can do? A few days ago, the Labour leader gave a widely publicised speech in which he lamented the modern political obsession with image rather than substance. It was all so wrong and annoying, he said. People focused on how you looked when you were eating a bacon butty or whether you bore a resemblance to a Plasticine animated character – when what the public wanted, said Ed Miliband, was ideas; first, last, always – ideas, policies, programmes and hard-edged initiatives.

Now you may think that a little bit rich coming from a guy who has just advertised for yet another “broadcast officer” on £80,000 a year, and who is apparently talking to professors of autism about how he can show more empathy when in public, but never mind. He is surely right.

It doesn’t matter, if you are a politician, whether you approach a bacon sarnie with the daintiness of Barbara Cartland or the carnivorous savagery of Luis Suárez. It doesn’t matter whether you look like Elle Macpherson or Jabba the Hutt – what counts is whether you have good, big ideas to tackle the many problems of a vast and mature Western democracy such as Britain.

So we were all naturally on tenterhooks when Miliband went on The Andrew Marr Show. We had heard the drum roll – now for the ideas! The substance! The gristly intellectual substrate beneath all this irritating media froth that he so rightly deplored. Perhaps he was going to explain why Marx had got some things right; perhaps we were going to get a definition of Ed Miliband’s baffling concept of “predistribution”, which seems to mean taking away people’s money before they have even earned it.

What did we get instead? Holy Wensleydale cheese, folks – the big new policy from Miliband is that he is going to work with Speaker Bercow to have a new kind of meet-the-public question time. Donnez moi un break. Welcome to the 21st century, Mili. If you bothered to consult this new internet thingy, you would find that this sort of event has been happening for some time.

Even in the governance of London, the public question time is standard stuff. The London Mayor and Assembly members are constantly to be found in school gyms and church halls, month in and month out, inflicting our opinions on innocent members of the public who have wandered in and stuck up their hand. If anything, people need some measure of protection from the unremitting levels of interaction that we want to provide.

But I needed to be fair to Ed – we went to the same school, after all – and so I checked that this was really the best he could do. So unlike 99.9 per cent of the population, I have gone back to the text of his great let’s-have-ideas-not-spin speech. I have read every word. I have sieved it and strained it for the smallest crouton of substance, anything at all that you could get your teeth into. Have a look yourself: it’s there online.

It is not a rich minestrone of policies. It is a watery and flavourless consommé of nothingness. There is absolutely nothing that corresponds to an idea that is either new or big; just a couple of paragraphs in which he makes a passing allusion to some of his small, old, bad ideas – before he gets back to the subject that he thinks is really important, viz his so-called image problem, the size of his teeth, etc etc.

In so far as he is willing to discuss policy at all, he reminds us in a few short and verbless phrases that he wants to bash the banks with a new levy – a mindless solution to the problems of financial sector irresponsibility, which will damage one of the strongest bits of the economy. He wants to put up taxes for the rich – which might gratify the vindictiveness of the Labour Left, but which will achieve nothing of economic value for this country; quite the reverse. He wants to poke the energy companies in the eye – a measure that will not exactly help them build the power stations we desperately need. And he wants to give over-mighty press barons a kicking, you know, er, like his ludicrous apology for posing with a copy of the Sun, a paper read by millions of people including a great many Labour voters… and that’s it.

These are the things he has now been saying for years, and it is this approach that has left him with the worst ratings of any Labour leader since Michael Foot.

Where are the detailed plans to tackle educational inequality, to reform welfare, to give the country the homes it needs, to provide the infrastructure for Britain to compete? They are being driven forward by the Conservative-led coalition. Ask yourself: what concrete policies is Ed Miliband offering – large or small – that will help encourage the spirit of enterprise in this country, so that we can create the wealth to pay for the poorest and neediest?

How can you take this country forward if you are offering nothing but a handful of knee-jerk attacks on businesses of all kinds? The answer is that you can’t.

Ed Miliband’s problem is not so much that he looks like Wallace. He should look at the films of the great Nick Park to see what has gone wrong. As soon as he was elected leader of the Labour party, he woke up, pressed for assistance on his special gizmo, and then he was shot through a hatch in the floor into a sinister pair of automatic steel leggings that are moving him irresistibly away from Blairism and in a direction of Leftist irrelevance. He hasn’t got the wrong face – he’s wearing the wrong trousers! And who is the blinking-eyed penguin who is controlling him? It’s Len McCluskey and the unions, of course.

Ed Miliband is absolutely right to say that politics should be about ideas, and he is right to say that these should be more important than image. But the awful fact – confirmed by this speech – is that, frankly, Miliband’s image and photo-opportunities are the best things he has in his political programme.

Compassion, Choice, Safety

Here's an intelligent article on assisted dying by a man who has worked all his life as a doctor and is now Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester.

But what I like about the case put by Raymond Tallis is that he deals with facts and people's experiences summarises what's at stake with three simple words: compassion, choice and safety.

Why we should allow assisted dying: compassion, choice, and safety

By RAYMOND TALLIS - The Independent

The present situation is cruel, dangerous, and at odds with the deepest values of the profession of medicine which I practised for nearly 40 years

Lord Falconer’s Private Members’ Bill to legalise assisted dying for mentally competent adults who have expressed a settled wish to control the time and manner of their death will today have its crucial Second Reading. The issue has attracted intense interest inside and outside parliament. An unprecedented 120 plus peers are tabled to speak and there has been extensive (and increasingly favourable) coverage in the media, prompted in part by declarations of support by prominent figures – notably Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians - and by the fall-out between the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (against) and a predecessor George Carey (for).

The overwhelming case for Lord Falconer’s Bill can be summarised in three words: compassion; choice; and safety. The law at present lacks compassion for that significant number of dying people who have intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved by palliative care. It denies a terminally ill person the choice of assistance to escape this suffering. This is at odds with the fundamental principle of medicine – namely that the wishes of a patient with sound mind should be respected. What is more, the present situation is unsafe, encouraging decisions about end-of-life care to depend on a clinical, ethical and legal fudges such as the single-minded use of the double effect, whereby it is permissible to give a patient treatment that may shorten their life if the primary aim is to relieve their suffering. This is happening outside any clear framework of law.

The alternatives to assisted dying are appalling: lonely suicides or botched attempts, ghastly pilgrimages to Switzerland for those who can afford them and are still fit enough to travel, slow death by starvation and dehydration, and amateur assistance from loved ones who face the possibility of prosecution and the place where they said goodbye to their loved one turned into a crime scene.

So how has it taken so long to get to the point where a law supported by 80 per cent of the population at last has a fighting chance of surviving in the Lords to be debated in the Commons? The answer is deeply disturbing. The opponents, although they are small in number, have been highly organised and have been very effective in spreading confusion about Falconer’s bill and disseminating factoids and inaccuracies about what happens in other jurisdictions that have liberalised the law on assisted dying.

Falconer’s Bill is routinely described by opponents as a “Right to Kill” Bill. Assisted dying for terminally ill people (where the last act is carried out by the patient) is conflated with assisted suicide for people who are not terminally ill, and euthanasia (where the final act is carried out by a third party). There is constant reference to slippery slopes where, so we are told, legalising assisted dying has resulted in pressure being placed on “burdensome’ elderly” - or simply unhappy - people to accept medical death.

The most pertinent evidence is from Oregon, which passed a Death with Dignity Act (DDA) 17 years ago. This is similar to the Falconer bill, though the latter has more safeguards. The proportion of deaths that are assisted has never risen above 0.25 per cent. There has been no extension to people who are not dying or who do not have mental capacity, and there is no public appetite to extend the law. What is more, for every person who is assisted to die, 10 or more people gain comfort from discussing this option with their medical team, and from knowing that it is available.

The reassuring Oregon experience has prompted the passing of similar laws in Vermont and Washington. Tellingly, the Oregon Hospice Association – which, like palliative care physicians in the UK – initially opposed DDA , withdrew its opposition after eight years of seeing the law in action, observing “no evidence that assisted dying has undermined Oregon’s end of life care or harmed the interests of vulnerable people”. Essentially, they have confirmed what supporters of the Falconer bill argue: that an assisted dying Bill will not mean that more people will die but that more people will have good deaths. Needless to say, opponents of assisted dying ignore the evidence from Oregon and focus on other jurisdictions, such as Holland that have an entirely different law from that proposed in the Falconer bill.

The population at large, however, does not buy this scare-mongering. What is more, there is a striking disconnection between the spokespeople for certain groups and those on whose behalf they claim to speak. In a recent survey, 79 per cent of people with disabilities supported assisted dying, though their leaders have repeatedly asserted that the Falconer bill would make them feel threatened, unwanted, and devalued. And a steady 70 per cent of Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews are at odds with the views of their bishops and rabbis.

Most disturbing of all (because potentially most influential) is the position of the bodies purporting to represent the medical profession. The British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) are opposed. However, only a third of doctors would be against having assisted dying for themselves! In successive polls, two thirds of doctors feel that their representative bodies should be neutral as they believe (correctly) that this is a matter for society as a whole decide. “Doctor knows best” is, or should be, a thing of the past.

Although the medical profession is deeply divided on assisted dying, the BMA refused to debate any of the 12 motions asking for a survey of members’ views on neutrality put forward at this year’s Annual Representatives Meeting. The RCGP has reaffirmed its opposition, having announced that 77 per cent of their members are against assisted dying, a figure based 234 individual respondents, or 0.48 per cent of the membership. The RCP is planning at last to poll its members, sensing perhaps that its current stance may not reflect the views of its members.

The present situation is cruel, dangerous, and at odds with the deepest values of the profession of medicine which I practised for nearly 40 years. Lord Falconer’s bill must not be blocked by an unrepresentative minority of opponents who may have their own reasons for denying the rest of us the right to die well. Let us hope that reason and humanity will prevail and that, if and when assisted dying is discussed in the Commons, politicians will have the courage to do the right thing and not be cowed by a very well organised minority exercising what they believe is their right to block attempts to alleviate the needless suffering of their fellow citizens.

Raymond Tallis is Emeritus Professor Geriatric Medicine University of Manchester and Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying

Assisted Dying

I found this article by Tiffany Jenkins in The Scotsman terribly arrogant because her 'sympathy' is patronising and offensive, and her characterisation of the current state of the law is quite simply untrue.

Because people are not free to take 'personal decisions' about ending their lives in as much as anyone helping a person to do so, a close family member or a friend, can be charged with a criminal offence, possibly murder, even if that person's wishes are perfectly clear.

Which is the underlying reason for putting safeguards around a process since it is highly unlikely that most terminally ill people could fulfil their last wishes by acting completely on their own.

So Tiffany Jenkins is an idiot, in my view, for misrepresenting a proposed change in the law as 'doctors and lawyers deciding whether our lives are worth living or not' - when the whole point of the Assisted Dying Bill is to take the criminal law out of the process.

And, by the way, who cares if Tiffany is an atheist because the only relevance of religion to this debate is whether religious believers are seeking to impose their views about the 'sanctity of life' on others who do not share their religious beliefs.     

Comment: Legalising assisted dying will dehumanise life
'The legal endorsement of assisted dying will influence how we relate to life and death issues'

It is well meant, but the Assisted Dying Bill will change the way we view the end of life and invite the law and bureaucracy into our deathbed, writes Tiffany Jenkins

NO-ONE can fail to sympathise with the reasons given for the Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by the Labour peer and former lord chancellor Charles Falconer, which has just received its second reading in the House of Lords.

The stories of the suffering witnessed by those speaking in favour of the bill are deeply moving. To want to relieve people of their physical and mental agonies is a very human impulse and many of us would like to help a loved-one exercise a choice if it is well-thought through.

Nor is it possible to prevent anyone from dying in the end, so why not ease their pain and speed the terminally ill on their way?

But whilst sympathetic, I do not support this bill, or any other moves to regulate, in law, assisted dying.

As I am an atheist this is not a position taken with any god in mind, or the church, as critics are often characterised and then dismissed; as if being religious somehow invalidates one’s point of view.

I am uncomfortable with legitimising and formalising in statute the assisted dying of the terminally ill, as this bill proposes to do; specifically those expected to die within six months, because it devalues life, and because doing so will inevitably introduce burdensome regulation to the deathbed.

For those who have very little time left to live, and who want to die with the assistance of families and doctors, they can elect to die. This is safer and more humane than formalising assisted dying which takes things a significant step further.

The new law asks for the endorsement and approval of assisting the death of a person who is terminally ill and it will give certain professionals the power and responsibility to act in this way.

The legal endorsement of assisted dying will influence how we relate to life and death issues. It will turn the taking of a life into a legal right and one that we have signed up to.

We already have that position, effectively, for war, but I do not want to see it extended to everyday life.

I don’t buy some of the scare stories promulgated by some campaigners against the bill: there is not a significant amount of mercenary people who want to speed up the passing of a relative for personal gain, but passing this bill will change the value we accord to the life of those who are dying.

Legalising assisted dying will place pressure on those who are terminal to feel they ought to die sooner, because it suggests that a good death is one that is quick and administered by professionals rather than long and drawn out.

The danger with this bill is that a way to die a good death is legislated for, and that can be controlling and manipulative.

The bill will turn doctors into professionals who have the formal right to take a life rather than carers who should do no harm.

This will change the relationship between patient and medic for the worse, and is one reason why so many medics are opposed.

Doctors also know it is difficult to correctly assess the amount of time that those who are dying actually have left, so you have to ask: how they will make the assessment that the patient, in the words of the bill “is reasonably expected to die within six months”?

Norman Lamb MP says that he backs the bill because “the individual should be the person who decides, not the state” and I have sympathy with this position, but how the individual makes this decision and how it is recognised, needs to be subject to greater questioning.

Many supporters of the bill talk of “appropriate safeguards”, but what are appropriate safeguards and what effect will they have?

In Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, the academic Kevin Yuill warns that “legalising assisted suicide inevitably sets up a tribunal of doctors and lawyers – state representatives – to objectively decide whether our lives are worth living or not”.

Yuill argues that assisted suicide will see private decisions become subject to external arbitration – they will be monitored and checked by appointed authorities – and that this formalisation could be traumatic for all concerned.

That is my fear. The bill, as it has to be because it will be law, is written in legalistic terms, and those terms should ring alarm bells because this is what people will face if they wish to go through with an assisted death.

For example, section 3 (1) (a) of the bill states that the intention to die shall be deemed legitimate if “the person has made and signed a declaration to that effect in the form in the Schedule in the presence of a witness (who must not be a relative or directly involved in the person’s care or treatment) who signed the declaration in the person’s presence; and (b) that declaration has been countersigned in accordance with subsection (3) by – (i) the registered medical practitioner from whom the person has requested assistance to end their life (‘the attending doctor’); and (ii) another registered medical practitioner (‘the independent doctor’) who is not a relative, partner or colleague in the same practice or clinical team, of the attending doctor; neither of whom may also be the witness required under paragraph (a)”.

Reading the bill makes my heart sink. This short extract from one section gives us a flavour of what safeguards will mean in practice – bureaucratic, legal checks will be brought in to regulate difficult, personal decisions.

And it reveals who will really have the power to decide what happens: doctors and lawyers.

Ultimately they will decide if the patient, having written and signed the approved declaration, is competent and capable of making such a decision.

And as we die, this is probably the last thing any of us want: paperwork that needs to be signed off by an appointed authority.

We should not invite the law into our deathbed.