Why I voted for the Assisted Suicide Bill

Logo of "My Life, My Death, My Choice," the campaign for the Assisted Suicide Bill.Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill, which had originally been brought by our much-missed colleague Margo MacDonald and was taken on by Green MSP Patrick Harvie after she died last year. After much thought, I voted in favour of the bill, but it was defeated by 82 votes to 36 (you can find out how your other MSPs voted here).

I am very grateful to the many constituents who have contacted me about assisted suicide over the past months, both in support of and in opposition to the Bill. This is an extremely personal issue and many of those who have been in touch have been directly affected by difficult end-of-life situations. I considered my vote very carefully, and the views and experiences of everyone who has been in touch have been invaluable.

My own personal experience is of an elderly family member who, I know, suffered beyond human endurance and was longing to be relieved of pain. She was in a hospice in the last few days of her life, living from one shot of morphine to the next. There was nothing more that could be done for her, and I have never forgotten how I felt so completely useless; she was ready to die and no-one would, or could, let her.

If I was in a similar position, I would have sought help to end my life. I find it very hard to justify a situation where that help is withheld from people who desperately need it.

As Margo MacDonald herself said, we have learned a great deal about how to create the right safeguards since she first presented the Bill in 2010. The revised bill had very robust measures to ensure patients would get proper medical advice and could not be pressured into a decision by family.

Under Margo and Patrick’s proposals, the individual would have had to gain the consent of two separate doctors. Nurses and doctors who had been previously involved in the individuals’ care would also be excluded from the process of witnessing any declarations required in the process. Family members, and anyone who would benefit financially from the individual’s will, would also have been excluded from acting in the process.

I believe that these measures would prevent individuals from being pressurised by others and would ensure that the choice lies with the individual, and the individual alone.

For all these reasons, I believe legalising assistance to die remains the just and compassionate thing to do.

With a majority of Scots in favour of change, clearly we still have a lot to discuss. I had hoped that MSPs who had reservations might voted to allow the deliberations on the bill to continue, even if they expected to vote against it in the end. But although this particular bill won’t go any further, I would be very surprised if it’s the last time the issue comes before the Scottish Parliament.

You can watch the debate and read my speech below. My contribution begins at 2:22:40 on the video, and the transcript of the full debate is available on the Scottish Parliament website.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

This Parliament has never shirked its responsibility in dealing with a number of controversial subjects that have brought about societal change. In bringing them to this chamber we hear many differing and often strong opinions, which inform and allow for the best kind of debate. As other members have done, I thank the many individuals, organisations and groups who took the time to articulate their reasons for offering their support for or objections to the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.

I will support the motion today for various reasons. I have listened to the different contributions to this debate, all of which have been very considered and many of which have been quite powerful. My instinct is that there should be a bill of this nature. I must set aside my reasons for that and join with those who are asking for the bill to be passed, even though their instinct is that it should not, or that it should not come into law.

Agreeing the general principles of the bill today will allow for greater debate and perhaps for more public involvement in what is, for most of us, an issue about which we feel strongly. It is really not an issue that we can be uncertain about in the end, as it were, if you will excuse the pun, Presiding Officer.

My main reasons for supporting the bill are, first, for the want of choice and fairness, secondly, as an act of human kindness and compassion, and thirdly, out of respect for any individual and his or her needs and beliefs. I, too, spoke to Margo MacDonald at some length about her bill, and I am pleased to have heard her name checked so often today, because she is synonymous with the bill and her desire was to see it become law.

To an extent, the bill as drafted may still be far from perfect, and what is clear from the Health and Sport Committee report is that there are still many questions to be answered and many details to be clearly articulated and understood by everyone. On such an important issue, the devil really will be in the detail. However, I believe that all of that can and should happen.

The right of an individual to be released from life at their own request should be acknowledged as their choice, and they should be supported. It would appear that the majority of people in Scotland, if we are to believe recent reports in journals and newspapers, now broadly agree that it is a matter of choice.

Scotland has an ageing population, many of whom will suffer degenerative conditions. The debate about the quality of life and how we can live it will continue for years to come. Meantime, anyone who out of compassion and love wants to help a friend or relative to die will remain open to prosecution, and inevitably more and more people who can afford to do so will travel abroad in order to have their wishes met. That cannot be right.

I acknowledge the views of those who are of a religious faith — I am not — and they do appear, judging by my mailbox, to be the largest group opposing the bill. They have their reasons for doing so, and I can respect that. They would never consider using the permissions that the bill would allow, and that is their right, but I would ask that they respect those of a different belief. It would be very wrong if the bill were to fail today on any religious grounds.

The problem will not go away, but rather will increase, and therefore the bill is timely. There is a strong feeling across the country, I believe, that recognises that and supports the generality of the bill.

Every contribution in the chamber today has been interesting, thoughtful and considered, and the Parliament is surely here to allow the debate to continue and not to shut it down prematurely. Please, let us not shut down this important debate. I urge members to support the motion.

Advertisements

Jean on the referendum: “It will not stop our ambition.”

In her speech in yesterday’s Scottish Parliament debate on the referendum, Jean pledged that she will always be committed to Scotland governing itself. While of course we accept the result, she said, “the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct,” and so we should see the referendum as the start of a road not the end.

Jean celebrated the way in which the referendum brought so many people back in touch with Scotland, with campaigners seeing more of the country, and everyone creating their own vision of its future: “The exciting thing is that people have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.”

You can watch Jean’s speech at BBC Democracy Live – skip to 1:36:20.

The full transcript of Jean’s speech follows. You can read the full debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

I thank the First Minister for his statement and acknowledge the extraordinary contribution that he has made over all these years. I am slightly taken aback by the comments that suggest that he is in the past now. I simply do not accept that. He may be demitting office, but I do not doubt that he still has a huge role to play in Scottish politics.

Similarly, I do not think that the result that we received on Friday morning means that the matter is done and dusted and is the settled will of the Scottish people. It may be the result that was voted for by a majority of people on that big and fantastic occasion, but life goes on and things change. Will everybody who voted yes be content with whatever the vow turns out to be? I doubt it. There will always be people who are committed to Scotland governing herself. I will certainly be one of them, and I know that there are hundreds of thousands of others. We might have another referendum. It might be in my lifetime; it might not be. However, the idea that 1.6 million people can, overnight, drop their enthusiasm for and excitement about the future is not correct. I am trying to say that we can accept the result, but it will not stop our ambition for something else.

One of the really staggering things about the referendum campaign was the way in which people discovered Scotland for the first time. People who had not had the opportunity before and who had not been north of Shettleston were suddenly appearing in Caithness, Shetland and the Western Isles, and in the east, west, north and south for the first time. That raises the question, “Where should we go as a country?” The first thing that we must do is encourage people to get to know what this country is, because without really knowing and understanding Scotland, how can we see what is best for our country? The exciting thing is that people — maybe not enough of us and, for some of us, too late on this occasion — have found their place and have, beyond discovering Scotland, discovered politics and even themselves. Through this campaign, we have excited people about the possibilities of their involvement in the governance of Scotland.

There has been a great deal of talk of the Scottish Parliament having control of the health service in Scotland. The health service was a hot topic and many people in the health service agree that there are issues around the NHS budget and what we should do about that. For me, it is rather like the West Lothian question—it comes down to our being in control. The health service budget does not operate in a vacuum. Two of the biggest pressures on the health service are people being out of work — we know that work is good for health — and people feeling completely powerless in the face of welfare changes, which is making them sick. We need to have the two levers of welfare and creating employment opportunities if we are to relieve the pressure on the health service.

For me, the answer to the West Lothian question will always be independence. There is no sense in MPs from Scotland going to Westminster to vote on the English education service or the English health service — why would they do that? — but there is no way round it. I think that Westminster will turn itself inside out and tie itself up in knots trying to resolve the problem, but there is only one answer for our health, our wellbeing, the discovery of our country and allowing people to take part.

It is not that we do not care about people in Liverpool. I am sick of the argument that, for the sake of universal socialism, we should never govern Scotland. That is nonsense. We can share the work of unions across the world — as a country, we have done that. I care as much about people in Liverpool as I care about people in Bonn, in Gaza or anywhere else where there is real concern for our fellow human beings. However, the answer for us, if we are to do our best by our country, will always be that we must absolutely govern it.

My dedication to an independent Scotland will not be diminished by the outcome that was announced last Friday morning. I suggest that it is only the start of a long road — or a short road — not the end of one.

“Purple Day” for epilepsy: Think Drink? Think Drugs? Think Seizure!

Jean wearing her purple ribbon (and sporting a purple folder!) for Purple Day.
Jean wearing her purple ribbon (and sporting a purple folder!) for Purple Day.
Jean is wearing a purple ribbon today to mark international ‘Purple Day’ for epilepsy awareness. Epilepsy Scotland supporters across the country are also wearing purple and organising fun purple-themed events in schools and workplaces, and landmarks like McCaig’s Tower in Oban, the SSE Hydro in Glasgow and even the sheep at the Pyramid Business Park on the M8 are turning purple for the day.

This Purple Day, Epilepsy Scotland are urging Scots to “Think Drink, Think Drugs, Think Seizure” – to be aware that people who look as if they are drunk or on drugs may in fact be having an epileptic seizure. The charity has produced a simple guide on providing first aid for a seizure.

Jean said:

Download Epilepsy Scotland's quick guide to first aid for seizures
Download Epilepsy Scotland’s quick guide to first aid for seizures
“I’m supporting Purple Day because epilepsy is such a common condition yet many of us still know little about it. Hundreds of Highlanders and Islander, including over 200 children in the NHS Highland area alone, have epilepsy.

“Purple Day is a great way to get people talking about epilepsy, which is essential because just a little knowledge about the condition could save a life. As with so many medical conditions, there’s also a social stigma – even a fear – that needs to be broken down through greater public understanding.

“Please take a moment go to the Epilepsy Scotland website and learn how to recognise and respond to a seizure. It will take just a couple of minutes but it could turn you into a lifesaver.”

Jean is a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Epilepsy, and has signed motions by Bob Doris MSP and Gil Paterson MSP supporting Purple Day.

Free event: Jean urges Highlanders to build a movement against mental health stigma

Jean Urquhart MSP supporting See Me. Jean is holding a round board with the words "see me, I'm committed to inclusion".

Jean is urging people with personal experience of mental health problems to take advantage of a free two-day event at the Dunblane Hydro to build a social movement against stigma.

‘see me’ – Scotland’s national programme for ending stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems – is hosting the landmark two-day event on 3 and 4 April 2014.

The event, which is expected to attract over 180 participants from all over Scotland, is designed to give participants the chance to get involved, have their say, share ideas and help set the key themes for the next three years to further tackle stigma and discrimination in Scotland.

To get more information about the event or register your interest, you can:

The closing date for applications is 5pm, Monday, 17 March 2014.

The event aims to attract people with personal experience of mental health problems, those who are close to or care for someone with mental health issues, those who work professionally in the field, and people who work with young people and employers.

Free accommodation at the Dunblane Hydro is being provided, and support is available for travel costs, so that no-one should be excluded from taking part.

Keynote speakers will include Minister for Public Health Michael Matheson MSP and ‘see me’ Director Judith Robertson.

Jean said:

“Mental health problems are very common – one in four of us will suffer from one this year. Despite that, having mental health issues still often means facing misunderstanding, stigma and discrimination.

“I’m right behind ‘see me’ and the work it does to put an end to that.

“This event is a great opportunity for people with direct experience to get involved. Free travel and accommodation mean that this will be so much more accessible to a wide range of people – especially in the north – than events in the central belt usually are.

“I’d urge people across the Highlands and Islands to apply to attend the event so that they can have their say about what we can all do to put an end to discrimination associated with mental health problems once and for all. This could be the start of a really important movement for change.”

About ‘see me’

  • ‘see me’ is Scotland’s national programme to end stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems.
  • The ‘see me’ programme is supported by a joint investment of £4.5million over three years from the Scottish Government and Comic Relief and works collaboratively with a range of partners including the Mental Health Foundation, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Voices of Experience, Scottish Recovery Network, Highland User Group, and the Mental Health Co-Operative.

About stigma and discrimination

  • Stigma is an issue of basic human rights and can have an impact on people’s recovery from mental health problems.
  • The most common situations where people with lived-experience face stigma and discrimination are: by friends and family; in employment/at work; within the local community; within mental health or other health services. These are also the situations where people are most likely to have disclosed their mental health problems.

Jean’s bid to protect children’s rights

Cartoon of a child leaning against a stack of huge books. On the books is the message "You have the right to an education." Image by Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young PeopleJean has proposed an inquiry into how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) could be enshrined in Scots law. She’ll be arguing for the amendment to the Children and Young People Bill in its final debate at Holyrood tomorrow.

If backed by MSPs, Jean’s amendment will require the government to set up a body to investigate whether the UNCRC should become part of Scots law, as is already the case with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The UNCRC demands that decisions about children always put their best interests first. It enshrines a number of specific rights, including the right to an education, the right to a family, and the right to be protected from violence.

Jean said:

“We’re currently engaged in a debate about the kind of country we want to be, and what kind of future we want for all our citizens. I think we should aspire to be the kind of country that always puts our children – our future – first.

“Enshrining children’s rights in Scots law would be a powerful protection for our kids, and a bold signal of our ambition to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in.

“We have the opportunity here to be a leading nation, not only in the UK but also in the world. By starting on the journey towards a truly child-centred society, I have no doubt we’ll give other countries the inspiration to travel with us.”

The United Kingdom ratified the Convention in 1991, as have 192 other countries. Somalia, South Sudan and the United States are the only UN members not to have done so.

Unlike the ECHR, the UNCRC does not give individual children any way to take action if their rights are breached. Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law would enable Scottish children to go to court here to defend their rights.

The Welsh Assembly has moved towards legal recognition of the UNCRC, and from 1 March the devolved Welsh government will be bound by the Convention. The Scottish Parliament, with its greater powers, has the opportunity to be the first part of the UK to incorporate the Convention into law in full.

Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law is supported by UNICEF, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, the NSPCC, Children 1st, Barnado’s, YouthLink Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Families Outside and Together.

Jean has also backed the Bill’s provision of a ‘Named Person’ service, which will ensure every child in Scotland has someone they and their parents can turn to who can help them navigate the various public services and support available. The scheme has been in place in the Highland council area since 2010, and the new law will roll it our nationwide.

Jean said:

“It’s a shame that the Named Person Service has been so misrepresented by media seeking to cook up a scare story.

“Parents are tired of being passed from pillar to post, never talking to the same person twice, and having to tell their story over and over again; they want joined-up services.

“The named person scheme means that every child and their parents have one person they can always call to help them navigate services, find advice, or be listened to.

“Some people have suggested that named person service means appointing a social worker for every child. That’s not true. In the Highlands, we already have the named person scheme and the people appointed are the local midwife and health visitor until the child goes to school, and then it’s the headteacher or deputy head.

“Named Person has been in place in the Highlands since 2010. I was a Highland councillor until 2012, and have been a Highlands and Islands MSP since 2011, and I’ve never received a single complaint about a named person interfering where they weren’t wanted.

“The Named Person Service will help families get the support they want and deserve, and create a safety net for every child.”

Rolling out the named person scheme across Scotland is supported by Barnado’s, Children 1st, Parenting Across Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, the NSPCC, Aberlour, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Action for Children, Quarriers, Royal College of Nursing and the Scottish Childminding Association.

Jean’s amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill:

116 Before section 1, insert—

<Duty on Scottish Ministers to establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect

  • (1) Within one year of this Act receiving Royal Assent, the Scottish Ministers must by order establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect.
  • (2) Where a body established under subsection (1) has completed its consideration it must—
    • (a) make a written report of its conclusions,
    • (b) lay the report before the Scottish Parliament,
    • (c) publish the report.
  • (3) As soon as practicable after the report has been laid before the Parliament, the Scottish Ministers must make a statement—
    • (a) responding to the report,
    • (b) indicating, on the basis of that report, whether they intend to give legislative effect to the UNCRC.
  • (4) The Scottish Ministers must—
    • (a) lay a copy of the statement under subsection (3) before the Parliament,
    • (b) publish the statement in such a manner as they consider appropriate.
  • (5) An order under subsection (1) may make provision about—
    • (a) the status, constitution and proceedings of the body,
    • (b) the period within which the body must report to the Parliament,
    • (c) the matters which must be covered in the report,
    • (d) the publication of the report.>

Jean urges decriminalisation for sex workers’ safety

Candles and messages commemorating dead sex workers: "Annette Nicholls, 29 years old, Murdered 2006, Ipswich, UK," "Fight violence, not sex workers."Jean has criticised Edinburgh’s decision to delicense its saunas and massage parlours, and called for a debate on decriminalising sex work in order to improve safety and decrease stigma.

Her intervention has been praised by the sex-worker-led charity SCOT-PEP as “courageous”.

In a motion to the Scottish Parliament, Jean praised Edinburgh’s formerly strong record of harm reduction policies on sex work, and urged the capital to reconsider.

Edinburgh has been unusual in granting Public Entertainment Licenses to sex work premises, a policy which improved health and safety and was strongly supported by sex workers themselves. Until 2001, Edinburgh also recognised tolerance zones for street prostitution.

Jean highlighted calls from sex workers’ organisations for full decriminalisation, as practiced in New Zealand since 2003. Kiwi sex workers now report much greater safety and wellbeing. Decriminalisation is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Jean said:

“Our first duty in dealing with sex work must be the protection of the safety and dignity of sex workers. Sex work can be dangerous; but those dangers are exacerbated, or in many cases even created, by criminalisation.

“In Edinburgh’s case, delicensing will eventually lead to saunas being forced out of business by raids and arrests – which is presumably its intention. This will force sex workers into more dangerous work such as street prostitution or working alone from home.

“This is a continuation of a concerted shift against harm reduction in Edinburgh. One of the changes already made, in 2001, has been to abandon the use of tolerance zones for street prostitution. A subsequent crackdown on kerb-crawling in 2007 led to sex workers reporting a 95% increase in incidents of violence over 12 months.

“Edinburgh’s management of sex work was a success story. But instead of the rest of Scotland learning from their experience, we are seeing failed policies being pushed on the capital.

“Both the hard evidence and the testimony of sex workers themselves tell us that fully decriminalising sex work, as in New Zealand, is the best way to protect sex workers and their communities. This would allow co-operation instead of conflict with the authorities, improve the health and safety of sex workers, and create the best possible environment for the eradication of coercion, trafficking and underage sex work.”

The sex workers’ charity SCOT-PEP said:

“SCOT-PEP warmly welcomes Jean Urquhart’s motion on Edinburgh city council’s sauna decision, and on the wider legal context of sex work in Scotland. It is heartening to see an MSP focus on harm reduction rather than on ideology, and back a policy – decriminalisation – that is supported by evidence, and international agencies including UNAIDS and the World Health Organization.

“We are delighted that Jean’s motion notes that decriminalisation is the legal framework called for by sex workers in Scotland, and around the world. For too long, debates about sex work have been dominated by policymakers who seek to dismiss the voices of those most affected. Sex workers are the experts on the legal framework that best enables them to work safely, and to access health, human rights, and justice.

“We have long fought for policy that centres safety, human rights and evidence, and are pleased to see that, in a context for sex workers in Scotland that has recently brought setbacks, we nonetheless have courageous politicians”.

If Jean’s motion gains the support of MSPs from three of the five Holyrood party groups, including Jean’s Independent/Green group, it will be eligible for a debate in the Parliament. If you support a debate on the issue, please consider emailing, writing or phoning your MSP and asking them to sign the motion.

Jean’s motion to the Scottish Parliament:

Motion Number: S4M-08986
Lodged By: Jean Urquhart
Date Lodged: 06/02/2014

Title: Criminalisation of Sex Work

Motion Text:

That the Parliament regrets the decision of the Regulatory Committee of Edinburgh City Council, on 3 February 2014, to remove massage parlours and saunas from the Public Entertainment Licence regime; considers that this decision represents a move toward deeper criminalisation of sex work and sex workers; believes that such criminalisation exposes sex workers to greater danger and stigma; further believes that Edinburgh’s previous sex work policies, including tolerance zones for street prostitution and licensed saunas, demonstrated success in reducing harm, and notes calls for Edinburgh City Council to reconsider this decision and the Scottish Government to give consideration to policies to decriminalise sex work, as it believes has been requested by sex workers themselves.

MoonWalk and the Highlands & Islands

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from Walk the Walk to hear about how the Moon Walk is helping improve the lives of Scotland’s cancer population. The amount of good that Walk the Walk are able to facilitate through their grants system is truly astonishing. Over the last 6 years, the Moon Walk has raised over £15 million in Scotland- hopefully I can help add to that total when I take part next year!

HIGHLANDS MSPS WITH WALKERS FROM THE WALK THE WALK CHARITY....PIC PETER JOLLY HIGHLANDS MSPS WITH WALKERS FROM THE WALK THE WALK CHARITY....PIC PETER JOLLY HIGHLANDS MSPS WITH WALKERS FROM THE WALK THE WALK CHARITY....PIC PETER JOLLY

Why I’ll Be Supporting Jim Hume MSP’s Bill

I am proud to be supporting Jim Hume MSP’s proposed Smoking (Children in Vehicles) (Scotland) Bill.

It is anomalous that while workers have rightly been protected since the Smoking, Health and Social Care Act in 2005, children continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of smoke. In fact, I learned from Jim Hume’s briefing in Parliament that children with two parents who smoke commonly have the same level of cotinine in their saliva – a test for second-hand smoke exposure – as adults who worked in smoky bars prior to the 2005 Act.

The Royal College of Physicians estimates that 25 children per day are admitted to hospital, and 600 per day have to see a doctor, as a result of second-hand smoke exposure.

The Scottish Centre for Indoor Air studied children’s exposure to smoke in cars, and found that the air in a smoker’s car contained on average 8 times more PM2.5 particulate matter than the background level in urban areas of Scotland, or 28 times more than the level in the cleanest rural areas.

The good news is that research with the children of smokers found that the vast majority did take precautions to try to reduce their child’s exposure, such as leaving the living room when smoking. This means that if we can get across the message that a car is a particularly dangerous place to expose children to cigarette smoke, we can expect that many smokers will willingly change their behaviour. This law will help us do that.

Ben McKendrick from the British Heart Foundation has also pointed out that as well as 84% of the general public supporting the measure, as do half of smokers.

I think this is an important and common-sense proposal that could help protect the health of thousands of young people, as well as helping to move us towards a smoke-free Scotland. I’ve told Jim that I am fully behind his proposed bill, and happy to help him get it into Parliament and then into law.

Photos: National Epilepsy Week Photocall

Last week I took part in a photocall organised by Epilepsy Scotland to mark National Epilepsy Week. As a member of the Cross-Party Group on Epilepsy, I’m becoming more and more aware of the issues affecting Scots with epilepsy and the great work being done by so many in helping to research and raise awareness of the condition. It was great to see so many fellow MSPs take part and to touch base again with Epilepsy Scotland, who are a credit to their cause.

DSC01603 1 DSC01607 Jean Urquhart MSP