Former Labour MP Frank Field asks peers to back assisted dying law as he reveals he is dying

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Former Labour MP Frank Field has asked peers to support calls to relax the law on assisted dying as it was revealed that he is dying.

Baroness Meacher read out a statement from Lord Field of Birkenhead in the House of Lords, where peers are debating the Assisted Dying Bill, which would allow terminally ill adults to legally seek assistance to end their lives.

She read out a statement on the 79-year-old's behalf because his illness meant he was unable to participate in the Bill, which is at its second reading.

'I’ve just spent a short period in a hospice and I’m not well enough to participate in today’s debate,' Lord Field said in a statement read out by a colleague

Lady Meacher said: “Our colleague Lord Field of Birkenhead, who is dying, asked me to read out a short statement. “I’ve just spent a short period in a hospice and I’m not well enough to participate in today’s debate. If I had been, I’d have spoken strongly in favour of the second reading," peers heard Lord Field said. “I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend was dying of cancer wanted to die early before the full horror effects set in, but was denied this opportunity. “A major argument against the Bill is unfounded. It is thought by some the culture would change and that people would be pressured into ending their lives."

He then referenced figures from the US and Australia, saying assisted deaths remain below one percent there, adding that a former supreme court judge in Victoria said pressure from relatives “just hasn’t been an issue”.

Frank Field in Westminster, London. Credit: PA

Lord Field spent 40 years as the MP for Birkenhead, and briefly served as minister for welfare reform in Tony Blair's first term in government.

In 2018, he resigned the Labour whip over the party's handling of anti-Semitism, telling ITV News that he would "think hard" about whether to trigger a by-election.He is among the members backing the bill, proposed by independent peer Baroness Meacher, which would amend legislation in England and Wales from 1961 that bans assisted dying.

Currently, those who have been judged to have assisted the suicide or attempted suicide of another person can be jailed for up to 14 years.

The proposed new law would allow adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be given life-ending medication. The person seeking to end their life would be required to sign a declaration approved by two doctors and it would have to be signed off by the High Court.

Baroness Meacher protesting outside the Houses of Parliament to call for reform as peers debate the new assisted dying legislation. Credit: PA

During Friday morning's session, Baroness Meacher said the current law “turns compassionate friends and family into criminals”, adding it “causes thousands of dying people” to attempt to take their own lives alone in order to protect their relatives.

She said she had an aunt with terminal liver cancer who “took all her pills and whisky” in the night and she was found dead by her husband.

“That death left an indelible mark on me and probably explains why I am here today," Lady Meacher said.

“This Bill is an attempt to drag our assisted dying legislation out of the 1960s and into the present day."

Critics of the bill, however, are worried it could leave some patients vulnerable to coercion.

Another crossbench peer Lord Curry, opposes the bill.

In Friday's debate, he told of how it would have been a "tragedy" if his daughter - who had a learning disability and died aged 42 - had had her life ended prematurely.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also opposes the bill and believes that although the safeguards to protect the vulnerable were stronger than in previous attempts to change the law, they still did not go far enough. “What we want is assisted living, not assisted dying. There is no difference between us in compassion. It is our concern about the effectiveness of the safeguards and the care for the vulnerable,” the Revered Justin Welby told BBC Breakfast.

A group of 1,689 current and retired doctors, pharmacists and medical students have called on peers to reject the bill, saying a change in law would "threaten society's ability to safeguard vulnerable patients from abuse."

In an open letter to Health Secretary Sajid Javid, they said a change could "undermine the trust the public places in physicians". "It would send a clear message to our frail, elderly and disabled patients about the value that society places on them as people," the group added.