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That leads to my second point, which is about the challenge of ensuring that adequate correctional resources are available to meet the demands of the criminal justice system, while also ensuring that individual circumstances are taken into account. The sentencing working group recognised that it is important to match the supply of correctional services to the demand for them. We considered the practicality of giving the sentencing council a duty to design guidelines that would match capacity. However, given the lack of systematic information
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available on sentences passed, we concluded that that would be impractical. Instead, we recommended that Parliament should express its intentions with regard to correctional resources at regular intervals. Personally, I believe that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and his Select Committee could have a role in that, although to make that case in this debate would probably stretch the point too far; perhaps it would be better to debate the issue in Committee.

Our view was that the effect of such an obligation on Parliament, combined with an assessment by the sentencing council of the effects of guidelines on correctional resources, would allow for more rational planning. As I outlined earlier, the ability of the correctional system to cope with demand is an essential element in achieving justice.

The third issue that I wish to cover is the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the new sentencing council. There has been some debate about that. Our working group studied the matter carefully, and we were clear that the workload of the chair of the sentencing council would be too substantial for the Lord Chief Justice to be appropriate; it would require a commensurate time commitment. However, we did recommend that the chair should be a member of the senior judiciary, appointed by both the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. It is clear to me, however, that the Lord Chief Justice should have a transparent and formal mechanism so that he can have some input into the work of the council. Perhaps that could be achieved through an appointed representative empowered to speak on his behalf during any deliberations in the council.

My final point is about the role of Parliament in setting sentencing guidelines. The working group did not come to a unanimous view on the role of Parliament. The majority believed that it would be inappropriate for there to be a duty requiring the sentencing council to consider Parliament’s intentions on resources when formulating guidelines, and that Parliament should have no role in approving any guidelines before they are implemented. The minority view of the group—a view that I share—supported a more active role for Parliament, perhaps including the Justice Committee, in relation to both those points. That would mean that the sentencing council would have a statutory duty to consider Parliament’s intention in relation to resources, and that Parliament would be able to approve guidelines before they came into practice. The obvious rationale for that approach is that, ultimately, Parliament is the only mechanism available for public accountability in relation to sentencing and its implementation. Manifestly, an independent judiciary cannot be held accountable in the same way.

We need to recognise that a fair sentencing system requires the application of clear principles. In turn, a more consistent approach, flexible enough to take individual circumstances into account, will reduce unexplained variation and reoffending, and could increase public confidence. I welcome and support the Bill, but I give notice that at a later stage—and subject to further consideration of the issues to which I have referred—I might well table my own amendments.

6.45 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I intend to be succinct, as requested. I am encouraged in that by my awareness that there are a plethora of lawyers here
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straining at the leash to gnaw at this amalgam of a Bill. I shall touch on just two points. First, I support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on clause 152, about which I am deeply concerned. Personally, I feel that it is a further step down the “brave new world” path.

Last year, I put it to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), a Minister at the Ministry of Justice, that the more the Government increase personal data and centralise them, the more valuable those data will become to those whom we would all wish not to have them. The Minister answered that there would be tough safeguards. That is utterly inadequate. First, the Government’s record on losing data is spectacularly poor. Secondly, if the Pentagon computers can be hacked into, I suspect that Ministry of Justice files and many of the others can also be hacked into, perhaps more easily.

Thirdly, and more fundamentally, there is no real safeguard against an individual with key access being paid or politically persuaded to provide illegal access. When, last year, I put that concern to the Association of Chief Police Officers representative leading on the central records, such as DNA records, of criminal—and now, increasingly, non-criminal—individuals, he admitted that that was his one greatest area of fear, deep fear. Many of us have watched with deepening concern the Government’s increasing collection of personal data on individuals and the consequential state intrusion into our personal lives. I see this step as representing an appalling risk of further infringement. It would be nice to think that, under persuasion, Ministers would step back—but somehow, I doubt whether they will. I hope that the next Government—a Conservative one—will draw back on that issue, and on others.

I now turn to a more positive issue for me personally. My main interest in the Bill is about the aspects that relate to children and crimes against them. I shall pick only one of them—the provisions relating to images of children. Those provisions represent a new change, one that for some years I have been trying to put on the statute book through discussions with Ministers and attempted amendments, and I welcome them. It has been well known for some time that the quality of computer-generated images is such that computer-literate paedophiles have been using software to produce pseudo-images of child abuse pornography. I am delighted that, at long last, Ministers have recognised the concerns; hence the new legislation.

However, I should also like to suggest some concerns. Clause 53 outlines the penalty for the new offence. Interestingly, as I read the clause, the convicted offender will not automatically be placed on the sex offenders register. As he winds up, will the Minister say whether I am correct? If I am, could such a provision be added at the appropriate stage? Secondly, the maximum penalty for making or distributing indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of child abuse is 10 years, while the maximum penalty for possession of such photographs or pseudo-photographs is five years. Clause 53 sets a maximum penalty of three years. It seems more appropriate that the maximum penalty in the clause should be similar to those that I mentioned—five years for possession, and 10 for making and distributing. I anticipate that in cases involving pseudo-photographs, the defence will
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argue that they were generated by computer images, involving a lesser penalty of three years. I ask the Ministers to think carefully about that.

Finally—and succinctly—I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to a missed opportunity. The success of this clause, and others concerning similar photographs, depends on detection. One of the difficulties is the increasing use of encryption. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the maximum penalty for failure to produce, on request by the police, the key to access such data is two years. It is blindingly obvious that any individual arrested on suspicion of having encrypted data relating to sexual abuse of children, including under these clauses, will refuse to give the key and risk a penalty of two years instead of revealing the key and risking a penalty of three, five or 10 years, as appropriate. I have raised this concern many times before, and perhaps the simplest way of concluding is to draw the Minister’s attention to my private Member’s Bill, which he might like to pick up and adapt to this Bill at the appropriate time.

6.50 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about how we legislate for activities on the internet. We are having to make progress in this area slowly and develop our legislation accordingly.

I am keen to raise several issues that stem largely from my experiences last year, when a cluster of suicides in and around my constituency reached international attention through the media.

The purpose of the coroner is simple and well defined in the draft charter for bereaved people published alongside the Bill. A coroner’s investigation is required if a death is violent, unnatural, of unknown cause or takes place while the person is detained by the state. It is the duty of the coroner service to establish whether an investigation is required and, if so, to ascertain the identity of the person who died, how, when and where they died, and—for me, most importantly—to assist in the prevention of future deaths and to provide public reassurance. Those requirements accord with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which establishes the right to life. I will focus my three areas of concern on the last two requirements.

I welcome the fact that the Bill provides coroners with additional powers, but there is, sadly, a case for further powers: first, to assist with the building of national, universal data collection frameworks to ensure that an increased range of information is routinely gathered; and secondly, to enable coroners to instigate, conduct and co-operate with psychological autopsies, especially where we have a cluster of deaths. Members may be aware that in England, but not in Wales, there is a national primary care suicide audit tool kit. All PCTs in England are required to show trends in suicide rates and trajectories and to provide action plans for delivery towards the national target of reducing suicide rates by 20 per cent. by 2010. However, PCTs give different priority to the suicide audits and use different methods of data collection, and therefore fail to develop a national, universal database. The suicide audit was rolled out by the Department of Health, and Members may question what relevance this has to a coroners Bill. The national
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suicide prevention strategy advisory group has acknowledged the need to record more detailed information in a number of areas and is monitoring suicide rates following self-harm, among different ethnic minority groups and occupations, and in relation to inequalities in social class. Currently, available data do not give information about whether an individual has had contact with statutory services in the period prior to suicide. We know that one in four people is likely to have had contact with the health service before they die and that many more will have had contact with the criminal justice system.

It is essential that such information is collected in order to identify the potential for intervention through the points of contact that those who take their lives had with available services and where lessons can be learned to help to prevent future suicides. The coroner service provides an excellent possible source for the development of these databases, and it is important that we develop its data collection provision. There has been a rise in the number of narrative verdicts being delivered by coroners, which, unlike open verdicts, are not included when suicide data are collected. Recent statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice indicate a greater use of open verdicts over a number of years by some district coroners. The coroner service is in a crucial position, and coroners’ verdicts provide essential information for monitoring public health. Consistent recording of causes of death is a vital component of the service, and I hope that the Bill will introduce the potential to develop it.

The problem was exemplified by Bridgend, where no detailed research has been carried out to examine the reasons why a cluster of suicides occurred and no research-based remedial action has been recommended. Importantly, Bridgend is not alone in needing that analysis. Bridgend did not have the highest suicide rate in Wales; in fact, it was 48th worst in the UK in 1998 to 2004, and four Welsh unitary authorities ranked higher. None of the inquests into the suicides across Bridgend has provided an explanation as to why the young people died in increasing numbers. Around the world, Bridgend was labelled a suicide town, the suicide capital of the UK, even a death cult town. The media stepped into the gap left by a failure to explain why the deaths were happening and ran with the story of an internet-based death cult. That story had no basis in fact, but since there had been no in-depth investigation of why the deaths occurred, it had—as I am told the expression is—legs.

The deputy children’s commissioner for Wales, Maria Battle, shared my concern and wrote to the Welsh Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills a year ago asking for a thorough investigation into each of the young persons’ deaths, to include all the agencies, and a thorough investigation into whether there were any links and, if so, what they were. She stressed that it was important that the investigations be as comprehensive as possible, in a local and a national context. As the local MP, I am not aware of any such investigation being undertaken. I am aware that, locally, people have been left anxious and confused, and that each new death brings fear and anxiety that a new cluster may be about to form.

I believe that the Bill can ensure that, in the future, such investigations are conducted in the form of psychological autopsies. Much is known about the risk factors that may play a part in the lead-up to a suicide,
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and much of that knowledge has been accrued through psychological autopsies that have taken place, notably under Professor Keith Hawton and England’s mental health tsar, Professor Louis Appleby. Psychological autopsies are a method of research that reconstructs the lifestyle and personality traits of the person who committed suicide, including the collection of detailed information from a number of different sources. We need to understand the reasons why clusters occur, so that things could be done to improve services locally, nationally across the UK, and even internationally. Perhaps health or education services could be adapted to meet the needs of the more vulnerable. Under the Bill, organisations and agencies will have a duty to respond to recommendations made by the coroner and to outline actions that they will take to prevent further deaths. That extremely positive way forward would be welcomed by everyone.

Information and knowledge are the key to finding answers and solutions to complex questions such as why X decided that their life was no longer worth living. Information must routinely be collected by coroners, providing universal data on all suicides, open verdicts and clusters of death. A universal data pool may be able to highlight trends that were not immediately identified by the local coroner, as nationally collected data provide opportunities for comparison and further learning.

I am aware that Liberty has argued that an extension of narrative verdicts would provide better answers to the questions of the bereaved about the circumstances of a death, and prevent further fatalities. However, unless we have a national system of psychological autopsies, we will not have the in-depth analysis that parents so often desire. To achieve such a system will require additional resources, and I am keen for the Bill to be expanded to allow senior coroners to be adequately resourced and staffed to commission such autopsies. It is vital that researchers and coroners can work together effectively, so that opportunities to prevent further needless deaths are not missed.

The second issue that I wish briefly to address is the protection of young and vulnerable people online. Like other Members, I would like to thank Professor Tanya Byron for guiding me through that new world, and I congratulate the Government on taking forward a number of the recommendations in her review “Safer Children in a Digital World”. Professor Byron recommended that the law on internet material should be clarified and enforcement responses explored, and that

and the illegality of the sites has been confirmed. The clarification of the law on suicide in the Bill and the increasing public understanding that the law applies as much online as offline provide legal parity and an opportunity for reassurance.

It is important to stress that the internet is a vast, worldwide web of information. To use Professor Byron’s words again,

A balance needs to be struck between protecting those who are vulnerable and enabling the freedom of the majority.

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Ministers will be aware that by coincidence, I chaired the second meeting of the all-party group on suicide prevention last week. The role of the internet and new technology in suicide was a theme of the meeting. Representatives from across the industry were present, and a lively discussion took place. There was no unanimous verdict, and strong feelings were expressed both for and against the banning of pro-suicide and suicide recipe sites.

Two phenomena need attention: the possibility that the internet may induce suicide or encourage someone vulnerable to commit suicide, and the possibility that it may provide details of suicide methods to someone who wishes to die. Those two types of site are commonly grouped together, but there is a grey area between the encouragement of suicide and the active engagement of individuals in suicide and the promotion of their death, and we need to ensure that we protect people by addressing it.

The Samaritans have expressed concern that the legal definition of “encouraging or assisting suicide” could create a difficulty for young people who use the internet, text messages and e-mail to discuss their suicidal thoughts and intentions. My reading of the Bill suggests that that will not happen, but there will be those who are anxious about attempts to bring the use of that new technology within the Bill. In contrast to the view of the Samaritans, Papyrus is concerned that the word “intent”, used in the Bill, needs further clarification to ensure that the wording is strong enough to ensure that prosecutions are successful.

There is limited research in the area, and it is provided mainly by Professor Keith Hawton and his colleagues from the centre for suicide research. They have searched online for sites providing information on suicide methods and found that one in five were dedicated suicide sites, half of which encouraged or promoted suicide and half of which contained personal and other accounts of methods. Only 13 per cent. of the sites that they found offered support or preventive action, which I find a really frightening statistic. Google and Microsoft tell me that they use search engine optimisation to try to promote support sites, but it is still not too difficult to find more worrying sites if one delves past the first page. Those companies indicated that they were not averse to doing more, but that they were keen not to lose their conduit status. We have to address that.

Mr. Gray: I commend the hon. Lady’s work as chairman of the all-party suicide prevention group. As an act of interest, this afternoon I Googled the expression “how to kill yourself”. The first several pages of sites were detailed, explicit recommendations about how to kill oneself, and none of them were support sites at all.

Mrs. Moon: That confirms the statistic that only 13 per cent. of the sites found provided supportive information. I commend the hon. Gentleman for taking the time to look at those sites, some of which are really frightening. Imagine a vulnerable youngster who is troubled about themselves and their future, and uncertain about their life, accessing the information on such a site. That is why the steps that the Government are taking in the Bill are so right. The existence of such recipe sites must be addressed, and we are right to do that.

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I appreciate that there are difficulties, given that many of those sites are not located in the UK and that many are located outside the EEC. It will be a complex task to account for those sites and have them taken down, but if the House is worth anything, it has to be worthy of taking to task new technology and finding a way of framing legislation that will allow us to protect vulnerable people, while still allowing technology to develop and expand so that we have new ways of exploring ideas. We must take seriously our responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

There has been much talk about autopsies and the need for privacy, but not really any talk about the effect on families, especially when a child dies. A lot of concern has been expressed in the debate about the holding of coroners’ hearings in private, but I want to represent my constituents who have come to me and described how their children have taken their own lives, and how they felt. They are angry, distressed and aggrieved that if their child had committed a crime, their privacy and anonymity would have been respected, but because they took their own life, the facts of their life were made public and spread across the media. We desperately need to consider how we can ensure that the coroner system protects the privacy of children who, because of their frailty, vulnerability and confusion, take their lives. That is a matter that I will wish to consider during the Bill’s passage.

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