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2.44 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) on his success in securing this important Adjournment debate. This is a vital subject to discuss, and I know that, as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, he takes a great interest in these matters, as does the rest of the Committee. I know from my time as a member of that Committee the importance of its work in this area.

I welcome the opportunity to explain developments to improve measures intended to prevent prisoners from taking their own lives. The increase in the number of suicides in prison is a major cause for concern. My ministerial colleagues take a close personal interest in self-inflicted deaths, and fully support the Prison Service's commitment to do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of such tragedies. I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting on record his appreciation of the good work that the service has done.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), the Minister of State, chairs a round table forum on suicides in prisons, and a twice-yearly meeting

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between the Prison Service and a range of interested groups. Those groups include the Howard League for Penal Reform--mentioned by the hon. Gentleman--Inquest, the Prison Reform Trust and the Samaritans. That provides a useful opportunity for the sharing of ideas, and the sharing of the aim to work more closely to reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths in prisons. The director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, gives suicide prevention a high priority, and is personally committed to a reduction in the number of deaths in custody.

Before discussing "safe cells", as the hon. Gentleman described them, I want to explain the strategy that the Prison Service has adopted, and how cell design fits in. The Prison Service strategy on caring for the suicidal was revised substantially in 1994, but is kept under continual review. The strategy is based on a multidisciplinary approach, involving all staff and, indeed, prisoners. It is based on good practice, and is widely agreed to be sound in principle. We are keeping the matter under constant review. Great emphasis is placed on inter-agency working. For example, a very good partnership has been developed between the Prison Service and the Samaritans.

The Prison Service is developing a range of additional measures to enhance current suicide awareness strategies. They include the identification and dissemination of good practice, improving screening and induction processes to identify prisoners at risk more effectively, introducing alternatives to the use of strip-cell conditions in the care of the suicidal, conducting further research into suicide and self-harm, and improving cell design to provide a safer environment. That work is being informed by the recommendations of the chief inspector's thematic review entitled "Suicide is Everyone's Concern", and focuses particularly on local and women's prisons and young offenders institutions. The hon. Gentleman mentioned such institutions.

Instructions and guidance to staff on caring for the suicidal are being re-examined and drawn together in a new Prison Service order to be issued later in the year. It will highlight good practice, and strengthen existing strategies to provide care for prisoners at risk. A new training programme for staff involved in the implementation of the suicide awareness strategy has also been developed, and is currently being introduced.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the part played by the conditions in which prisoners are housed is recognised as an important factor in the Prison Service. However, that is only one element of the strategy that is needed: the main focus of what we are doing is on good staff-prisoner relationships. It is vital to deal with that difficult problem. The Prison Service has developed an improvement on what was known as the safe cell, which offers increased protection. That design has been introduced in some of the newest prisons, and in parts of older prisons where that is practicable.

The concept of the safe cell followed a report, published in February 1997, which focused on the physical environment needed to produce a "safe" cell. Although originally aimed at those prisoners identified by staff as being at risk of self-harm, the cell design requirements specified in the report clearly contribute to increased control, better health and hygiene, lower maintenance, easier searching and improved cell life-cycle costs. As I said, the concept is a comprehensive one.

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It was decided that, because of those additional advantages, it would no longer be appropriate to continue to describe the cell as a safe cell, but to regard it instead as the service's improved standard cell--which meets the standards that we want to achieve.

The improved cell design has several features that can assist staff greatly in the difficult task of managing those at risk. The number of potential ligature points, for example, has been reduced as much as possible. A major source of ligature points is the cell window, which has been totally redesigned in the improved cell to minimise the opportunity for ligatures to be fastened to it or to parts of it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that change.

The improved cell will be included in all new houseblocks under construction at current establishments and at new prisons that are being built under the design, construction, management and finance--DCMF--initiative. Reference has already been made to the fact that 120 improved cells have been included in one wing of a new houseblock at HMP Swaleside. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also very much appreciate the fact that, between them, the new prisons built at Agecroft and Pucklechurch have 1,088 cells that reflect the new design requirements. Additionally, the new prisons under construction at Marchington and Onley will similarly reflect those requirements. Invitations to tender for the next two DCMF new prisons will also require bidders to reflect the new standard cell specification.

The design is well regarded both inside and outside the Prison Service. It is the model standard that has been adopted for future development in new prisons. Use of the improved cells also fits in well with the chief inspector's concept of healthy prisons and the work currently being done to develop a safer prisons standard.

I am very pleased to tell the House that the improved cell is regarded as an important piece of design work by the Prison Service. It is very good also that the standard has been embraced not only by the Prison Service itself, but by the private sector involved in the building of new prisons. Many outside bodies, too, appreciate and have responded very favourably to the development.

Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the physical nature of the improvements needed to deal with those problems, I am sure that he will appreciate that the experience of both the Prison Service and the outside community is that suicide prevention is not only about such improvements, but can be a rather more complex issue.

Mr. Russell: Does the Minister accept that not one of last year's 91 suicides or one of this year's suicides occurred in a safe cell?

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Mrs. Roche: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. However, although restriction of access to means of self-harm may impact on impulsive individuals, when someone is truly determined to go along that path, they may still find a way to do so, and the experience of the Prison Service is that, unfortunately, that has been found to be the case. We need to take a holistic approach and examine that and other methods. For example, the dangers of over-reliance on physical prevention have been seen in previous use of strip-cell conditions. The Prison Service has abandoned that policy as inhumane and degrading to people who, in some cases, are vulnerable.

What is required is for all prison staff to work with prisoners who may be at risk of self-harm to try and resolve their problems before they feel driven to try to take their own lives. It may be of interest to the House that fellow prisoners have a role to play. The listener schemes that are in place in the majority of prisons enable prisoners to discuss their feelings with a fellow prisoner who has been trained by the Samaritans. That is an excellent initiative, especially in cases in which prisoners feel unable to discuss their problems with a member of staff.

Of course, the prison population includes many people in the at-risk group, including those who have been physically and sexually abused, substance abusers and others, as the hon. Gentleman dwelt on in his remarks. Despite the very sad rise in the number of deaths, it is important not to lose sight of the success stories. We know from our experience that good care and support from staff have saved many lives. That fact does not show up in any statistics so, sadly, it goes largely unreported. However, throughout the country, there are many excellent people in the Prison Service who have worked extremely hard in this area and, once again, I wish to pay tribute to them.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I fully support the work of the Prison Service in this important area. I am very grateful indeed for the co-operation and multi-agency work of many agencies in the voluntary sector and other interest groups. This is a vital area, and we certainly need to do something about those figures. I am convinced that we can do that with the measures that I have outlined and the work in progress.

I shall end as I began, and thank the hon. Gentleman for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the subject, however briefly, and for enabling me to put on record all that is taking place in this area.

Question put and agreed to.

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