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I was a member of the delegation that met Baroness Scotland. As the Minister has said, it was a useful meeting for those of us who went with PAPYRUS. The point that she made forcefullyI hope that the Minister will acknowledge thisis that this is a classic case of joined-up Government. It has been necessary to deal with a number of problems. The Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health are clearly the front Departments concerned. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge
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that there is an important role to be played by a number of Departments if we are to be successful in dealing with the problem.
We have heard from the parents of a number of young people who have killed themselves after visiting such websites. To lose a child in such circumstances is devastating, and it is vital that we do all that we can to raise awareness of the issue and prevent other young people from taking the same course. Of course, the problem is not confined to websites. As the tragic case of Sarah Cherry illustrates, information about suicide and suicide methods is available through other media, including books. Sarah took her own life after buying a book from the internet bookstore Amazon bearing the appalling title, "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying". That publication could equally have been obtained through any high street bookstore, but the internet clearly makes it easier than ever before for people to obtain such material.
I am aware of the concern expressed by the Preston coroner that such books are in circulation. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) has tabled early-day motion 170, which has so far attracted 77 signatures. Many of the concerns about this issue have been directed at the Home Office, which has clear responsibility for the criminal law on assisted suicide as well as for policy on law enforcement relating to hi-tech crime. Other Government Departments also have a role to play. In particular, the Department of Health has responsibility for the Government's suicide prevention strategy, which was published in September 2002 and aims to reduce the death rate from suicide by one fifth by 2010.
The Department for Education and Skills, through the superhighway safety initiative, provides important advice to teachers, parents and children to reduce the risks of schoolchildren being exposed to inappropriate content and contact via the internet. The Department of Trade and Industry has responsibility for ensuring that the United Kingdom is a market leader in the e-business sector, and that the relevant legislation is conducive to that aim. The Government's clear view is that actions are legal or illegal according to their merits, rather than according to the medium used. What is illegal offline should also be illegal online. While there is not any specific legislation relating solely to the internet, a range of existing UK law covers what online or offline actions constitute an offence, including the Obscene Publications Acts, public order and harassment offences, fraud and copyright offences.
I will come to the Suicide Act in a moment, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. Even if we are successful in closing down websites or removing websites based in the UK that promote such material, it could be accessed from websites in other
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countries, which poses a substantial challenge. We must therefore work with other Governments and law enforcement agencies where appropriate to deal with the issue. The internet presents us with a global challenge, which we must meet with a global response.
If an individual in the UK produces material on a suicide website, and in doing so commits an offence, the prosecuting authorities can take action against him and seek the removal of the material. The difficulty is that most material hosted on such sites, although considered distressing and distasteful by the majority, is not necessarily illegal. Suicide itself is not an offence, but section 2(1) of the Suicide Act makes it an offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure another person to commit or attempt suicide. For aiding and abetting to be proved, there must be participation in the act of suicide, as well as a knowledge of what is going to take place. Someone who counsels or procures is liable only for an act of suicide that is committed as a consequence of what he does, so there must be a causal connection between the counselling and procuring and the commission of the act. Establishing that causal link is fundamental to proving that an offence has occurred.
If an individual helps someone to inject himself with a lethal drug or supplies the lethal drug knowing that it is required for the purpose of committing suicide, they could be charged with aiding and abetting. But simply providing information about suicide does not in itself necessarily amount to aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring, any more than providing information about ways to commit murder would constitute an offence. This is a crucial point. There are many works of reputable fiction which describe criminal activity, or indeed suicide, and thereby give an indication of how to commit the acts. Even though there is no intention to encourage them, they could in reality be the catalyst for someone who was on the brink.
So the direct causal link must be clearly established, and it is highly unlikely that those producing these websites will participate in specific acts of suicide or know that they are going to take place. Similarly, in terms of counselling and procuring, it would be difficult to establish a causal link between the websites and the commission of actual suicides.
An example of how this works in practice is the booklet published by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which describes the easiest and most painless ways of committing suicide. The court held that an offence would be committed only if the distributor intended that the booklet would be used by someone who was contemplating suicide, and that the individual was in fact assisted or encouraged to do so. Although the content of suicide websites, and books such as the one purchased by Sarah Cherry, may well be considered more objectionable than the Voluntary Euthanasia Society booklet, it seems likely that the same interpretation would apply to those who produce them because, in essence, they are doing the same thinggiving general information about ways to commit suicide.
In practice, whether an offence is committed would depend not only on the actual content, but on factors such as whether there had been any communication between the authors of the material and the person who wanted to or did commit suicide. If anything, it might be
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even more difficult to prove than the Voluntary Euthanasia Society case, in which specific individuals were sent copies of booklets on request.
There may be a greater likelihood of an offence being committed by users of the chat rooms that can be accessed through these websites, rather than those responsible for the sites themselves. For example, if a person asks in a chat room how to commit suicide, is told by someone else how to do it, and does in fact then commit or attempt to commit suicide, that individual may be guilty of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide or attempted suicidealthough, as always, that would depend on the circumstances of the case.
PAPYRUS has asked whether it would be possible to further test the law by bringing a case that would confirm whether the giving of information and general encouragement, whether through a website's actual content or by the user of a chat room accessed through the website, could be held to be aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring. It is, of course, for the courts
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to interpret the law, but we have drawn the concerns of PAPYRUS and others to the attention of the Attorney-General.
As I said earlier, it is difficult to see how the law might be amended to prohibit these websites. Even leaving aside freedom of expression issues, it would be a radical departure to make it an offence simply to give general information about something that is not in itself illegal. There might also be unintended consequences for legitimate activitiesfor example, criminalising crime fiction, or even websites that may be seeking to offer help to those who are contemplating suicide.
In conclusion, there are many things that we must do and that we can do. I chair the taskforce on child protection on the internet, and there are read-across issues there. The Department of Health has a clear role to play. The internet service providers also have a role to play. They have various policies in place to try to provide additional protection in this difficult area. It is complex, there is no quick fix, but the Government are determined to do what they can to prevent this kind of dreadful suicide.
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