Former Labour minister Frank Field, 79, reveals he is terminally ill

Former Labour minister Frank Field, 79, reveals he is terminally ill as he backs Lords’ plan to change the laws on assisted dying to allow people to end their own lives

  • Former MP too ill to attend Parliament as peers debated changing legislation 
  • Assisted Dying Bill gives patients right to die by taking life-ending medication
  • Message from Field read out by Baroness Meacher in House of Lords debate
  • Former Birkenhead MP cited a friend who suffered ‘full horror effects’ of cancer 

Former minister Frank Field revealed he is terminally ill today as he urged Lords to ease the law to allow assisted dying.

The 79-year-old was too ill to attend Parliament as peers debated changing legislation to enable adults with no hope of recovery to legally seek assistance to end their lives. 

But in a message read out in the upper chamber the devoutly Christian former MP, who represented Birkenhead for 40 years until 2019, admitted he had spent time in a hospice recently.

The now Baron Field of Birkenhead, who has never married or had children, urged them to change the law, citing a friend who had gone through the ‘full horror effects’ of cancer.

He did not disclose what illness he is suffering, and the announcement came as a surprise to many at Parliament. Tory former housing secretary Robert Jenrick hailed him as ‘one of the politicians I have most admired and respected’.

Baroness Meacher read out the message from the peer, whom she said was ‘dying’,  in which he said: ‘I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend 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.

‘The number of assisted deaths in the US and Australia remains very low – under 1 per cent – and a former supreme court judge of Victoria, Australia, about pressure from relatives, said it just hasn’t been an issue. 

‘I hope the House will today vote for the Assisted Dying Bill.’

Downing Street suggested today that MPs will be given a free vote on the bill when it comes to the Commons, with a spokesman saying it was considered a ‘matter of individual conscience’.

Frank Field was too ill to attend Parliament as peers debated changing legislation to enable adults with no hope of recovery to legally seek assistance to end their lives.

Baroness Meacher read out the message from the ‘dying’ peer, in which he said: ‘I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend dying of cancer wanted to die early before the full horror effects set in, but was denied this opportunity’

The Assisted Dying Bill, tabled by crossbencher Baroness Meacher, gives patients of sound mind, with six months or less left to live, the right to die by taking life-ending medication.

They gathered in Westminster holding placards reading ‘Yes to dignity’ and ‘Yes to choice’. Pictured (right)  is former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson

Labour veteran who said Thatcher was his ‘hero’ and quit party over ‘nastiness’ under Corbyn

Frank Field first entered Parliament as MP for Birkenhead in Merseyside in 1979 and became one of the longest-serving members of the Commons.

As chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee he became a thorn in the side of the Conservative government as it sought to change the benefit system – but also increasingly clashed with his own party as it moved leftwards under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

It came to a head in August 2018 when the Brexiteer resigned the Labour whip, citing anti-Semitism and ‘nastiness’ in the party. 

Left-wing agitators in his Birkenhead constituency had previously passed a vote of no confidence in him for siding with the Government in key Brexit votes. 

Having held the seat for Labour in 2017 with a majority of more than 25,000, he stood against the party in 2019, representing his own Birkenhead Social Justice party.

But he was beaten into second place by Mick Whitely and later became a life peer.

Mr Field led the charge in some of the most high-profile crusades against British businessmen in recent times.

As chair of the powerful pensions select committee, the veteran MP’s most notable campaign was fought against retail tycoon Sir Philip Green over the collapse of BHS.

After hauling the billionaire to parliament and subjecting him to an hours-long roasting, and after a very public war of words, Sir Philip agreed to pay £363 million towards a staff pension deficit.

He later trained his guns on another corporate debacle, that of Carillion.

The outsourcer’s liquidation in January 2019 left a £900 million debt pile and hundreds of millions of pounds in unfinished public contracts, as well a £800 million pension deficit. 

Mr Field was first elected in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher swooped into power.

He counted the right-wing Tory premier as a friend and a political ‘hero’ but resisted attempts to get him to defect to the Conservatives.  

He saw off an attempt by far-left activists to deselect him in the 1980s and continued as a Labour MP throughout the long years in the wilderness before Tony Blair’s election.

Mr Blair made him minister for welfare reform after the 1997 landslide victory, a role he held for a year before they fell out and he quit. 

He was later appointed a poverty czar by David Cameron. 

The Assisted Dying Bill, tabled by crossbencher Baroness Meacher, gives patients of sound mind, with six months or less left to live, the right to die by taking life-ending medication.

She later joined protesters calling for reform outside Parliament while the debate continued.

They gathered in Westminster holding placards reading ‘Yes to dignity’ and ‘Yes to choice’. 

The Bill, which would allow terminally ill adults to legally seek assistance to end their lives, has its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday.

It would enable adults who are of sound mind and have six months or less to live to be provided with life-ending medication with the approval of two doctors and a High Court judge.

Campaigners say it will give people with terminal illnesses greater choice and control over how and when they die, with safeguards in place to protect them and their loved ones.

Opponents say any change would put pressure on people to end their lives and that current laws protect the vulnerable.

The demonstration was organised by the campaign group Dignity in Dying, and included members of Humanists UK and people with personal experiences of the current law.

 

Campaigners argue that a change in the law would give those at the end of their lives greater control over how and when they die.

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

Under the terms of the bill, the person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which is signed off by the High Court.

However opponents, including many religious leaders, warned that it could leave vulnerable people exposed to unwanted pressure.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had earlier claimed vulnerable people could face ‘intangible’ pressure to end their lives if the law is relaxed. 

Justin Welby said that although the safeguards in the legislation 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,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

‘Sadly people make mistakes in their diagnosis. It leaves people open to very, very intangible forms of coercion and pressure.

‘I have sat in places where I have known that people were having pressure put on them in ways that would never come out.

‘It is just the sigh, the thing of ‘Oh yes it’s rather difficult,’ it’s just the odd comment that moves people who are so vulnerable in the last months of life to feeling ‘Oh well I’d be better off out of here’, even when it’s not what they really want.

‘The point is, we have to have compassion for the vulnerable.’ 

Earlier this week Lady Meacher told the PA news agency that she was introducing the legislation to alleviate ‘unbearable suffering’ among the terminally ill.

‘Should we really be leaving people who are in obviously terrible straits, the most appalling suffering and illness, to die on their own in the middle of the night? Really? Can’t we do better than that as a society?’ she said.

The Conservative former cabinet minister Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who previously opposed right-to-die legislation, indicated that he would be supporting the change this time, following the death of his father from cancer.

‘Just before he died I went to see him and said ‘I’m so sorry, dad, you’re in this position’, and he completely took me aback by saying ‘well, you’re to blame, because you and others have consistently voted against the right to die, I would like to be relieved of this, they can’t relieve the pain and I am in this position because of folk like you’,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

‘I also had this nagging guilt, I’ve always voted against it but actually at the same time felt a complete hypocrite because I would want it for me if I got some terrible motor neurone disease or something, I would want it for me to spare not just me, but my family.’

Lord Forsyth also dismissed claims that vulnerable people could come under pressure to end their lives.

‘Those who say this is a slippery slope, that families might gang up to get the money – all those arguments, I think they’re misguided. What we’re talking about here is people who have less than six months to live,’ he said.

But crossbench peer Lord Curry of Kirkharle opposed the relaxation of assisted dying laws, telling peers it would have been a ‘tragedy’ if the life of his daughter had been cut short early.

He explained: ‘Eight years ago my wife and I held the hands of our daughter, aged 42, who had a learning disability, while she passed from time into eternity.

‘She breathed her last while we held her hands, a very emotional and precious moment for us. Not an experience one envisages when bringing a child into the world. Six years before that she was very, very ill with pneumonia and other complications, and wasn’t expected to survive.’

Lord Curry told of his daughter’s ‘battle to live’, adding: ‘We were torn between wishing her to pull through and yet thinking that perhaps the best solution might be for her to slip quietly away so that her pain and suffering could be over.

‘If someone at that time had offered an assisted dying, assisted suicide option, I firmly believe that in that heightened emotional state we were in, not thinking rationally, we may have been tempted to agree to her premature death. Had we done that, it’d have troubled us for the rest of our lives.

‘Remarkably she pulled through, a long hard slog, but she enriched our lives for another six years, enjoyed her own life and continued to influence hundreds of people in that time. What a tragedy it’d have been had her life been cut short six years too early. That’s exactly what will happen if this Bill is supported.’

However, Conservative peer Lord Dobbs of Wylye supported the bill, saying: ‘My father died of prostate cancer, as did my eldest brother in August. My remaining bother has been told he won’t survive it. I myself was diagnosed with it earlier this year.

‘So, for the men in the Dobbs family this isn’t a matter of surmise, this is a matter of profound practicality, and believe me, my lords, it focuses the mind.

‘My life, my body, my character belong to no-one but myself. Of course, others have an interest in my life and my death but I have the ultimate right to decide what happens to me, not the state, not the Church, not any court.

‘I understand the resolutions expressed. This is not a bill which demeans the disabled and it’s not about getting rid of granny.

‘My lords, if the time were to come when my life was made unbearable though extreme pain, humiliation, when I was stripped of all hope, then I would end it if I could, no matter what the law says, because it would be a law of the utmost cruelty which says myself and my loved ones must suffer in agony and without hope, but that is what the current law does and that, my lords, is why it must be changed.’

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