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I agree with my hon. Friend. Neither age nor geographical location is a barrier to accessing the information. The phenomenon can affect people of all backgrounds, nationalities and ages. It is important for the Government to take those points on board when they respond to the debate.
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Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery institute in Seattle, has done much work on the matter. In an article of 12 June 2003 on www.suicide.com entitled "Suicide Advocacy Goes Online", he notes that suicide promotion and facilitation has entered cyberspace and cites an article by Julia Scheeres from the San Francisco Chronicle of 8 June 2003. Wesley J. Smith's article says:
"In 'A Virtual Path to Suicide,' Scheeres demonstrates how indifferent to the value of human life certain segments of our society have grown, and how callous they are when faced with a despairing person wishing to commit suicide. First, they bestow moral permission. Then, they teach the self-destructive person how to do it. Finally, they keep the suicidal person company until the deed is done. It is the modern version of the howling crowd yelling, 'Jump! Jump!' at the suicidal person standing on the skyscraper window ledge.
This is what happened to 19-year-old Suzy Gonzales. Despite having a full scholarship at Florida State University and a loving family, Gonzales wanted to kill herself. Her suicide was set in motion when she found an Internet site whose participants 'view suicide as a civil right that anyone should be able to exercise, for any reason.' On the site, Scheeres reports, 'Gonzales found people who told her that suicide was an acceptable way to end her despair, and who gave her instructions on how to obtain a lethal dose of potassium cyanide and mix it into a deadly cocktail.' . . . The Hemlock Society"
"has promoted the idea of suicide as the 'ultimate civil right' for years. And, just like the denizens of the Internet site taught Suzy Gonzales how to kill herself, Hemlock publications have long instructed readers how-to-commit suicide while its conventions regularly feature guest speakers who bring their newly invented suicide machines for conventioneers".
The phenomenon of so-called copycat suicides and suicide pacts is emerging more and more on the internet. In Japan, two men and a woman were victims of a suicide internet website just before the new year. The three young victims, who were not named, suffocated themselves by burning disposable barbecue coals in a car in Mitama in Yamanashi on 30 December. The methodone of the latest to circulate in the suicide internet communityis disturbingly similar to the one used by a Lancashire man in August 2004. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning after suffocating himself by burning disposable barbecue coals.
Japan has been hit by a series of suicide pacts formed in suicide chat rooms. A fortnight before the death of the three young people in Mitama, four men died in a Tokyo apartment following a suicide pact. Early in 2004 another six people were found dead and nine more fell victim to an internet group suicide in October. According to Japan's police force, a staggering 45 people committed suicide in groups after meeting online between January 2003 and June 2004.
Suicide pacts have been made over the internet since the late 1990s and have been reported worldwide, from Guam to the Netherlands. Experts say that they tend to occur in cycles, with news of group suicides sparking copycat incidents, which are discussed on websites. On new year's day this year, an e-mailer to the notorious US-based ASHalt.suicide.holidaynewsgroup, where people discuss suicide methods, revealed that a 15-year-old girl had used a method detailed on an associated online list of suicide methods to kill herself.
The situation is becoming frightening. For example, on the Google search engine, if one types "I want to kill myself" and hits "search", the fourth result brought
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back is a notorious suicide message board, with long lists of people who are interested in committing suicide. Getting into contact with people that way is perilous, because people cannot be sure to whom they are talking via a message board or in a chat roomparticularly people who are vulnerable and suicidal. There may be contact with a person who gains some form of perverse pleasure from convincing someone that they should kill themselves.
These cases raise a series of questions about how people should conduct themselves when using the internet and what sort of conduct should be allowable. I shall not stray into human rights, because I do not believe that there is a case to answer in terms of people having the right to commit suicide or to encourage others to do so. The human rights arguments might hold some sway in the United States, where groups claim that they can conduct such activities legally and that they are protected by the first amendment to the American constitution, which relates to freedom of speech, but the same is not true in this country. However, I do have some questions to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond.
Will my hon. Friend ask himself whether he believes that suicidal people ought to be talking to those who encourage or promote suicide, which could createit might already be creatinga community of people on the web who believe that suicide is acceptable, normal and even, as some claim, a "human right"? I understand from PAPYRUS, which is an organisation that was set up to prevent young suicides, that suicide sites are not mentioned in any of the Government's relevant publicity material. Nor are suicide sites mentioned in the national suicide strategy for England. What will the Government do to discourage people from accessing suicide sites, and will they encourage people to seek help?
Would the Government consider setting up a regulatory body to which concerns about websites that may be offensive or harmful can be reported, and pressure the Internet Watch Foundation to act where it can? Should people be guided by the internet service providers to "help" websites first, before allowing access to suicide methods and information, and how can the Government persuade internet service providers to do that?
Will the Government consider the case for prohibiting access to suicide sites altogether through filtering? That may hold some technical difficulties for internet service providers but the problem is technically no different from dealing with illegal pornography on the internet. Should it therefore be made a duty of the service provider?
Is it time to introduce new legislation, as has been done in Australia, that makes it a criminal offence to use the internet to counsel or incite suicide? The legislation there includes a maximum penalty of 110,000 Australian dollars, or £45,000, for an individual. The offences cover the use of a carriage service, including the internet, to access, transmit or make available materials that counsel or incite suicide. It covers also materials that promote and provide instruction on a particular method of suicide. Possession, production
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or supply of that material is also covered. Will the Government consider incorporating some of the Australian legislation into UK law?
I am sure that the so-called peddlers of death can hide behind internet chat rooms and carefully constructed rhetorical arguments that are meant to mask their macabre fantasies, but it is the duty of elected representatives and Government to do everything in their power to pursue, prohibit and prosecute these promoters of suicide, even if the internet environment makes that task more difficult.
The parents and family of Sarah Cherry deserve no less, as do the families of those who have already been victims of these people and their vile material. There are also those who face difficult lives and need help because of mental illness or suffering who may one day fall prey to this evil.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) on securing this debate on an issue which I know arouses considerable interest. That was evidenced by the fact that a number of hon. Members have contributed to the debate.
The Government are well aware of the growing concern about suicide websites and chat rooms that can provide information and potential influence over vulnerable young people who may feel encouraged to take their own lives. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that Ministers have already been contacted by PAPYRUS, an organisation that has twice been mentioned this evening. It is a UK charity that is committed to suicide prevention, as part of its wider campaign to raise awareness of the potential dangers of such websites.
In July last year, my colleague Baroness Scotland, the Minister of State, met members of PAPYRUS and a cross-party delegation of Members to discuss their concerns. My colleague has since corresponded with them about what the Government are doing to try to tackle this complex problem.
Perhaps I should emphasise at the outset that while my remarks will reflect the complex nature of the law in this area, I have the greatest sympathy for those whose lives and families have been touched by the tragedy of suicide.
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