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7 Jul 2000 : Column 598

Prison Suicides

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): If today's debate results--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Hon. Members must not walk in front of the hon. Gentleman who is addressing the House.

Mr. Russell: If today's debate results in one fewer suicide in prison, it will be worth while. However, I am looking for much more than that, as, indeed, I am sure the Minister is. Something must be done to reduce the growing number of suicides in prison, which last year reached a record of almost eight every month.

Suicide rates in prison are 10 times higher than the rate in the community outside. That is a horrific statistic, with which none of us can be content. Far from suicide levels in prison being higher than in the population at large, they should be lower--and they would be, if "safe cells" were installed, particularly for remand prisoners and those with a known psychiatric history. In my opinion, the latter category should not even be in prison in the first place.

In the past decade, more than 600 men, women and children took their lives in English and Welsh prisons. The number of suicides has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. I do not have the figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I have heard nothing to indicate that levels there are lower than in England and Wales.

Two thirds of suicides are by prisoners on remand--people who have not been convicted of a crime. Yet remand prisoners constitute only about a fifth of the prison population, and many remand prisoners are subsequently found not guilty or given a non-custodial sentence. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports:

That is a shocking indictment of our prison system as it relates to remand prisoners.

Today's debate is not about whether we have too many people in prison, although I believe we do; nor is it about calling on the Government to reduce the prison population, although I wish they would at least bring the UK's figures into line with those of all the other countries in the European Community. Today's debate is exclusively about the unacceptable number of suicides in our prisons and about one specific measure that should be taken more seriously than it currently is, so that suicides would become extremely rare rather than commonplace, as, sadly, they are at the moment. A suicide rate 10 times higher than that for the population at large indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with prison life that needs to be addressed.

Improved regimes, more purposeful time made available to prisoners rather than them locking them up around the clock; careful screening to identify those with potential suicidal tendencies; and a determination to stop

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putting people in prison when a psychiatric place is more appropriate should all help to reduce suicides. However, important though all those measures are, the growing number of people taking their own lives in prison suggests that more needs to be done.

The over-use of prison has led to many vulnerable people being incarcerated. The resulting overcrowding puts a strain on resources, as well as on relations between staff and prisoners, leading to inadequate standards of care for those at risk of suicide. About one third of those who take their lives in prison have a history of mental health problems. The Mental After Care Association contacted me this morning to ask me to bring to the debate the stark message that too many people with mental disorders are in prison, and to praise the work of the joint prison health care taskforce and the joint prison health policy unit in improving health care in our prisons.

Last year, 91 people committed suicide in prison--the highest ever toll. Of these, 56 were unsentenced people, four were aged under 18; 15 were aged between 19 and 21; and five were women. I am advised that by yesterday, there had been 42 suicides in prisons this year.

In 1997, a total of 69 people, 48 of whom were on remand, committed suicide in prison. In 1998, the figure was 83, of whom 50 were on remand. In the vast majority of cases, death was caused by hanging. So far, no prisoner has committed suicide in a safe cell.

The provision for remand prisoners of safe cells, which offer no means whereby a prisoner can hang himself or herself, would result in a two-thirds reduction in prison suicides. If safe cells were more widely introduced in prisons, the figure would be reduced even further. The message is clear: safe cells save lives.

I invite the Minister, in his summing up, to say what it costs the Prison Service, and the public purse more generally, to deal with a suicide. We know from Government figures that the cost of a fatal road accident is £1 million, but what is the cost of a suicide in prison? It is impossible to put a value on the traumatic consequences for the family when someone kills himself, or on the effect that such a death has on the prison staff who have to deal with it. However, if we can establish the true cost of a prison suicide to the public purse, it will put into perspective the extra cost of installing a safe cell compared with a more traditional cell--perhaps a fairer description would be an "unsafe cell".

The Minister will be aware that I have recently tabled several parliamentary questions about safe cells. I should explain that my interest in this new concept of a prison cell is a direct result of being contacted by Mr. John Sadler, who represents one of the companies involved, whose international marketing office happens to be located in my constituency. The company, Velstone International Ltd., does not manufacture its products, of which safe cells are only one line, in Colchester, but I hope that in time expansion may lead to a local manufacturing base.

For the technically minded, I should explain that Velstone is manufactured from a polymer matrix with an aluminium tri-hydrate mineral filler. Velstone solid surface material has the durability and richness of natural stone, yet it can be thermoformed, cut, shaped and profiled just like timber. As a layman, I can best describe the finished product as a single self-contained unit comprising moulded items of immovable and unbreakable

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furniture. A bed, a table and a chair form part of the structure, as does a toilet and wash basin. All plumbing and electrics are encased in the moulding, and there are no hooks or fittings to which a ligature could be attached.

Other advantages are the significant improvement in cleanliness and hygiene; the fire safety rating, which is in keeping with modern best practice; the reduction of search regime times; the eradication of vermin and bug infestation; and the savings made on expensive resources by water control devices.

Safe cells cost more than traditional cells--I am told about an extra £10,000 per cell--but maintenance costs are much lower. Most important, however, is the fact that so far they have proved to be suicide resistant. They are designed for the 21st century, replacing outdated and substandard equipment--and they save lives.

I understand that Britain's first safe cell was installed about five years ago in Witham police station in Essex. It is not just in prisons that such cells should be installed; police stations and courts should also have them.

I am told that the first prison to have safe cells was Belmarsh in August 1997, followed by HMP Moorland, with two and eight cells respectively. The first major installation was at HMP Swaleside, when 120 were put in a new wing. There is some dispute, however, as to how many safe cells have been installed subsequently, for when is a safe cell not a safe cell?

In response to a written question that I put to the Home Secretary in March, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), referred to proposals to install 576 cells in Rye Hill prison, scheduled to open in January 2001, which will incorporate the key elements

Would the Minister care to describe what elements of the safe cell concept and design will not be included in the Rye Hill cells? Furthermore, what is the difference in cost between the Rye Hill cell and a safe cell that contains all the elements, not just the key ones?

In a written answer to me on 6 March, the Minister of State said:

He then added the highly significant words:

Were the 1,088 safe cells installed in the last financial year in the privately managed Ashfield young offenders institution and in Forest Bank prison in Manchester in accordance with the full concept and design, or with the lower specification of what the Minister's colleague described in his written answer as the new "improved standard cell"?

I am sure the Minister can confirm that there has been no incidence of self-harm or self-inflicted death in any of the safe cells that have all the elements, so why downgrade the design? Is it because the true safe cell is more expensive, and those behind the private finance initiative prison building and management programme want to cut costs by installing a lower standard of cell in terms of safety considerations?

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With an estimated 56,000 cells in prisons--to which must be added many thousands more in police stations, courts and places such as Rampton--safe cells represent little more than 1 per cent. of the total number of cells. Meanwhile the suicide rate in our prisons continues to increase.

I should like to place on record my appreciation of Her Majesty's Prison Service, particularly the suicide awareness support unit, for all that it is doing to deal with this appalling situation. Indeed, there is little doubt that if it were not for that unit, even more people would have killed themselves. It is thanks to the work of those responsible for drawing up a suicide awareness strategy--a partnership between the Prison Service and private industry--that the concept of a safe cell has been developed. That is the good news. The bad news is that too little is being done to install sufficient safe cells.

In the words of the Howard League for Penal Reform:

With so many prisoners committing suicide, I submit that the state is failing in its duty of responsibility. I know that the Minister is as anxious as I am to see a reduction in, and hopefully a total elimination of, suicides in prison. I contend that the installation of safe cells that meet the full specification, not merely the requirements of a reduced standard, will achieve that objective.

I urge the Minister, the Home Office and the Prison Service generally to use the term "safe cell" and not the term "new improved standard cell." I feel that the former conveys what this is all about, and should thus be used at all times in order to reinforce the importance of this whole matter.

As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I shall be inviting colleagues to consider this matter in detail and to report to the Home Secretary. In the meantime, I invite the Minister to use her best endeavours to increase the number of safe cells as a matter of urgency.

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