Baroness Molly Meacher talks drugs policy, assisted dying and House of Lords reform


Molli Tyldesley reflects with Baroness Meacher about what the future holds for policy in Parliament

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By Molli Tyldesley

In this special 500th edition of Nouse , I got the opportunity to speak to Baroness Molly Meacher. Baroness Meacher attended the University of York in the years after it first opened, graduating in 1970. While at the University, Baroness Meacher studied Economics, and went on to have a career in social work and employment. She now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.

As this is the 500th edition of Nouse , I began to think about what has changed since the paper was created in 1964, and what the future holds. How will our country change in the next ten years, for example? In the interview, we discuss Baroness Meacher’s time at York, assisted dying, drugs policy and the House of Lords itself, all areas which raise pressing questions about the future of the UK.

Our interview began with a conversation about Baroness Meacher’s time at York. She explained that she was “a bit of an unusual student” because she had three children under the age of six. The University was relatively “new and vibrant” at the time; she enjoyed her degree in Economics enormously, but naturally she missed out on the social side of university. She even explains that “when I was doing my finals, I was looking after my kids. I would eventually get them into bed and start revision for the next day!”

I asked Baroness Meacher how and why she got into social work. She explained that she was interested in “issues of poverty, unemployment and so on. "I thought I really ought to learn about people’s lives and it seemed like doing a social work course and practising social work for a few years would be a very good way of learning”. She described social work as “a profoundly educative experience”. She explained how social work educated her about “real life, hard life”.

Baroness Meacher told me how she spent four years working as a social worker in London; two years in mental health in Northwick Park Hospital and a further two in Camden. Interestingly, Baroness Meacher’s work has not just been limited to the UK: she worked for the Russian government in the early 1990s, where she advised them on employment. Her role involved “coordinating contributions from ten different countries trying to build an employment service in Russia across eleven time zones”. She said this job was, “in a way the best job I’d ever had”. She described working with people from different countries and feeling that the work was both “thrilling” and “very worthwhile”.

Significantly, she emphasised that while her degree in Economics was useful, it was her experience in social work which helped her to advise the Russian government effectively. Baroness Meacher and I went on to discuss assisted dying, a topic she feels passionate about as the Chair of Dignity in Dying. Dignity in Dying is a charity which campaigns for people who are terminally ill to be able to end their own lives in exceptional circumstances. Assisted dying was once very controversial, but is becoming increasingly supported by the general public and therefore viable as an option in the UK.

With health and social care at the forefront of many people’s minds following the pandemic, this could become a prevalent issue in the next ten years. Baroness Meacher explained that the charity focuses on people who “ have symptoms that cannot be controlled by palliative care ”. She goes on to explain that it is not “physical pain that is necessarily the worst thing”. A few examples she gives include being constantly nauseous and being allergic to anti-sickness medication, so being sick all the time; having a tumour that has an awful odour, so you have to be separated from other people and you constantly smell; as Baroness Meacher explains, these things mean that “you can’t enjoy anything”.

Unfortunately, in these circumstances, life is no longer worth living. According to Dignity in Dying’s website, 84 percent of the public support some form of assisted dying being legalised. Baroness Meacher explained that people should “be allowed to end it in a dignified way, with their friends and family around them”. Notably, the organisation she chairs only campaigns for a minority of cases, where life is truly unbearable.

The key is that people can “take a bit of medication themselves it’s not about euthanasia, it’s not about doctors killing somebody at all - it’s all about the patient being in control”. Critics of these proposals suggest that families could put pressure on patients to end their own lives, taking the choice away from them. However, Baroness Meacher responded by saying that “at the moment, if I’m dying, I can stop taking my medication, I can starve to death, I can throw myself under a train.

"People have ways and means of ending their lives, which in my view are deeply unpleasant or terribly dangerous”. If assisted dying was legal, people would not have to turn to these horrific methods of ending their lives. In summary, their proposals are all about “patient choice, patient control and avoiding unbearable suffering at the end of life”.

Baroness Meacher and I went on to discuss drug reform policy, another area which she has written and spoken in Parliament about. Baroness Meacher explained that she supports a change in drugs policy because for her, “avoid - ing unnecessary suffering” is paramount. At the moment, she points out, anyone can buy illegal drugs which are probably contaminated and harmful, and buying drugs currently puts people in contact with criminals. “The consequences of the current illegality of drugs are really quite appalling for the addicted individuals, for their families, communities and for the taxpayer”.

One of the policies she puts forward is that doctors should be able to prescribe heroin to addicts on the NHS; they were actually able to do this before the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Baroness Meacher pointed out that “what this does is take that heroin addict out of the illegal market all together”. Furthermore, you now have “clean heroin, properly sold through regular markets, to doctors and chemists”. This means that addicts, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, will have a safer way to access drugs.

Another drugs reform policy Baroness Meacher suggested is providing consumption rooms for heroin addicts to safely inject themselves.If addicts were supervised by doctors and social workers, they could be persuaded to source their drugs from doctors rather than from criminals. Baroness Meacher also emphasised the importance of therapy for addicts to help them pull away from their addiction. In summary, drug reform policies can be used to entice people “away from illegal markets and into normal life” and that is why they are so necessary.

The aim is for taxpayers to save money, and for drugs-related deaths and the number of people addicted to fall. Baroness Meacher is a sitting member of the House of Lords. The Lords is one institution which has, so far, stood the test of time in this country.

Is it time for reform?

Baroness Meacher believes that “ideally political representatives in the House of Lords should be elected”. She suggests sending regional representatives could work; around 400 members should be elected, while 100 should remain as crossbenchers, selected by an independent commission. The crossbenchers are important, Baroness Meacher insisted, because they are people who are “not going to stand for election” but whose knowledge of different fields is invaluable. For example, there are former government officials and those who have worked in education, the police and the justice system.

Crucially, Baroness Meacher said that “the Prime Minister should not be able to interfere with those appointments”. They should be down to an independent commission, and therefore remain separate from our political system. This is a step which I believe could be welcomed by the electorate. Overall however, the Lords has a very important function in the UK’s political system for Baroness Meacher.

“All bills, pretty much, do change after consideration from the Lords – and I would argue, for the better,” she told me. She explained that secondary legislation is created by House of Lords committees; Baroness Meacher herself sits on the Delegated Powers Committee. Fundamentally, this means that they “try to get governments to put more stuff on the face of a bill and not just delegate it to ministers.

It’s important to our democracy that Parliament is in charge”. While a lot has changed since Baroness Meacher graduated from the University of York in 1970, she continues to spend her career fighting for further change.

Assisted dying, House of Lords reform and drugs policy reform could all become salient issues in the next decade as the country recovers from the pandemic and seeks to reshape itself. Perhaps in the next ten years, the policies she is so passionate about will become a reality.

Image credit: Roger Harris