Sir Keir Starmer wants to legalise assisted dying in next parliament

Sir Keir Starmer told Dame Esther Rantzen during a phone call that he was 'personally committed' to a change in the law. ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand reports

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said that he wants assisted dying to be legalised after the next election.

Speaking in a phone call with broadcaster and campaigner Dame Esther Rantzen - who has expressed her own wish for an assisted death - Sir Keir said he was "personally committed" to a change in the law.

It is currently illegal to help someone take their own life in the UK. However, there is growing political momentum in favour of allowing assisted dying - also known as assisted suicide.

ITV News filmed a phone call between Ms Rantzen and Sir Keir, in which he told her a Labour government would allow parliament the time to debate and vote on a change in the law.

ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand explains on Good Morning Britain why Dame Esther's involvement is so important for the campaign

"I'm personally in favour of changing the law", he told her. "I think we need to make time. We will make the commitment. Esther, I can give you that commitment right now."

Speaking to ITV News, Ms Rantzen said all she is asking for is the opportunity for terminally ill people to die "when and how they choose".

She added: "When you reach my advanced age of 83 and a bit you have seen people you love pass away.

"Some peacefully and painlessly, but not all and, unfortunately, when someone you love has a very painful death that memory obliterates the good times when you think about them.

"You remember their suffering and I don't want my family to have that. That would be all wrong.

"So, as far as I'm concerned I would much rather, when I knew the end was coming, choose a painless death."

When pressed by ITV News on whether he'd like a vote to take place within the next parliament, Sir Keir replied: "Oh yes, definitely. I think Esther would agree with this.

"For people who are going through this or are likely to go through it in the next few months or years, this matters hugely and delay just prolongs the agony."

The last time MPs voted on legalising assisted suicide was in 2015, with the bill defeated by two votes to one.

However, gathering in parliament on Monday evening, MPs supportive of a change in the law said they believe the political mood has changed.

If Sir Keir wins the next general election, for the first time the law would be debated under a prime minister who personally favours assisted dying.

Dame Esther Rantzen has expressed her own wish for an assisted death Credit: PA

In his previous role as director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir personally recommended that families who assist terminally ill loved ones to die should not be prosecuted.

While the Labour leader said he would offer MPs a "free vote" - meaning they would not be compelled to vote in favour or against assisted suicide - Sir Keir's personal position sends a strong signal to his party.

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said Sir Keir's comments send an "important signal to all MPs and candidates: listen to dying people, listen to constituents, it's time for change".

"Only a free vote early in the next parliament can deliver what our terminally ill citizens need - a safe and compassionate law providing choice at the end of life," she added.

ITV News exclusively revealed earlier this week that an overwhelming majority of the public are in favour of assisted dying, according to the largest poll ever conducted.

Around 75% of people said they support a change in the law, versus 14% who are opposed.

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The poll was conducted by Opinium on behalf of the pro-assisted dying campaign group Dignity in Dying.

However, there remains strong opposition to a change in the law among some medical and religious groups.

When ITV News asked Sir Keir how a law would address their concerns about pressurising vulnerable people into assisted deaths they may not want, he insisted it was possible to introduce safeguards.

"I think that's the crucial question," he said. "Firstly, I think the debate has to be conducted with respect. I personally think the law should be changed. There will be people equally passionate, with powerful points to make about why it shouldn't be."

"When I consulted on this for the prosecutor's guidelines, the churches and faith groups and others were very, very powerful in the arguments they made.

"We have to respect that and find the right balance in the end. I do think most people coalesce around the idea that there is a case [for assisted dying] where it is obviously compassionate, it is the settled intent of the individual, and there are safeguards with teeth to protect the vulnerable."

Dr Gordon Macdonald, Chief Executive of Care Not Killing, said: "Changing the law to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia in the UK would represent a dramatic change in how doctors and nurses treat and care for people and put the lives of the vulnerable, terminally ill and disabled people at risk.

"Indeed, these dangers are particularly acute when the health service is crumbling, hospices are underfunded and one in every four people who would benefit from palliative can't access it."

He added: "Sir Keir needs to recognise the real dangers associated with legalising state sanctioned killing, such as the pressure it puts on people to end their lives prematurely, and the growing body of evidence showing assisted suicide appears normalise suicide in the general populations."

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