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House of Lords

Tuesday, 1st February 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Prison Suicides

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many suicides by prisoners there have been in British prisons and penal institutions in each of the last three calendar years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, there were 288 self-inflicted deaths in the past three years in British prisons and other penal institutions. The figures for each year were: 85 in 1997; 96 in 1998; and 107 in 1999. Those figures include the three separate Prison Services for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while the Government obviously inherited a difficult situation in that context, those figures are extremely disturbing? Does he further agree that in a penal system geared to be effective, of which ultimately the greatest test of all is its success in rehabilitation, it is almost unthinkable that there should be any suicides in prison at all? One suicide in prison is one suicide too many. Will my noble friend say what specific action the Government are taking to put the situation right? Will he assure the House that that will have priority second to none in the Government's desire for an effective penal policy?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend makes a telling and important contribution to the discussion on that subject. I agree with him about the seriousness of the issue: one death in our prison system is one death too many. It is not a victimless tragedy; it also affects the families. The Government are well aware of the issue. Last year's thematic review report from the inspector of prisons, Suicide is Everyone's Concern, expressed those feelings well. I might add that, in statistical terms, the suicide rate in our prison system mirrors almost exactly the suicide rate in the wider population.

The Prison Service is undertaking a number of measures to try to bring down the number of suicide tragedies in the prison system. Breathing and movement monitors are now being tested. There is extra scrutiny of prisoners considered to be at risk, and at-risk prisoners are assessed early in their incarceration within the system. We are getting to grips with the problem. Important steps and

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improvements have been made. We shall continue to try to improve the quality of care of prisoners within the system.

Lord Laming: My Lords, will the Minister agree that sometimes tragic acts of suicide are associated with abuse of prisoners by other prisoners, either physically or sexually? Will he further agree that there is a need to ensure that prison staff are alert to such dangers?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. There is no doubt that abuse at an earlier age may be a contributory factor. There are also other apparent contributory factors to what are often extremely tragic and sorry stories: drug abuse, drug dependency, alcohol dependency and other such problems come with the territory. The sad truth is that there is a high concentration of suicide deaths among younger males within the prison population.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, of course every suicide in prison is a tragedy, but may we also have some understanding of the difficult job that prison officers and prison governors do in looking after what are by definition some of the most difficult people in our society, as the Minister has just indicated?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we would all wish to pay tribute to the prison officers and other staff within the Prison Service, who give fantastic support and service to those incarcerated within our prisons. It is to their incredible credit that they undertake many hours of training, in particular, to try to identify those who are vulnerable and at risk within the prison system. The number of deaths that they prevent as a result of their understanding of the problems that prisoners face is incalculable.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that deaths in police custody--not in prisons--fell by 30 per cent in the first eight months of 1999, following a rise of 41 per cent during the previous three years? Does he accept that what is required is to identify at-risk inmates at the point of detention; provision of closed-circuit television in specific cells; and improved training for prison officers in the care of vulnerable people? As a first step, does he further accept that the unacceptably high prison population does not allow that to happen?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot accept the noble Lord's final point. As I have explained, the staff are well trained. They deal with difficult cases and difficult individuals. They are expert in understanding self-harm and how such things come about. We are confident that the improvements outlined as a result of the thematic review completed last year will continue. With regard to deaths in police custody, I confirm that there has been a welcome decline in the statistics in that part of the service, which is rather different from

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deaths in prison whose explanation is more complex. Deaths in custody in police cells and otherwise have a different cause.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, given the fact that bullying by other prisoners is often a major cause of suicide and that bullying is best controlled by adequate staffing levels, will the Minister indicate whether there is a correlation between the rate of suicide and reduced staffing levels?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not aware of a correlation. The numbers are actually so small in themselves that it would be difficult to draw an inference between the two factors highlighted by the right reverend Prelate.

Lord Wigoder: My Lords, is it beyond the wit of man to limit the access of prisoners to the means of committing suicide?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a useful point. Steps have been taken within the Prison Service to improve the design of cells and also to try to limit the ways in which prisoners may be able to use prison furniture to assist them in taking their own lives.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is it true that some of these suicides follow episodes of sexual or physical abuse by other prisoners? If so, are procedures in place to alert staff to such sexual or physical abuse?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it may well be the case that that is a contributory factor. The causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted, as academic researchers since Durkheim in the early part of the century have realised. Staff are trained to try to identify those prisoners within the prison system who are most at risk. We should be grateful for the quality of that training because it probably prevents many more deaths.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, do records enable the Minister to distinguish between suicides or self-inflicted deaths in establishments run for people who are immigration Act detainees rather than prisoners? Does the noble Lord accept that there is a particularly high risk in places of that kind because many of the inmates will not be able to speak English and therefore it will be more difficult for the staff to identify those who are at risk?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord's final point is important and it is one of which staff in detention centres and prisons will have to be peculiarly mindful. The numbers are small and so it would be hard to draw any inference from the nature of the establishment in which people are secured. I am

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happy to go away and research the precise figures, but my recollection is that the numbers of suicides in immigration control centres are very small indeed.

Youth Unemployment

2.45 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What has been the reduction since May 1997 in the number of young people who are neither in employment nor in training or education; and whether they expect that this number will be further reduced during the next two years.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, at 9 per cent of the population, the number of 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in employment, education or training has remained stable since 1997. Over the same period, the number of unemployed 18 to 24 year-olds has fallen by a quarter and long-term youth unemployment has more than halved. Helping young people who are at risk of social exclusion is a priority of the Government, who are introducing measures to raise educational standards, to provide better services to support young people, and to encourage them to remain in learning.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, which suggests that inroads are being made into this most serious and socially corrosive employment problem. However, will my noble friend assure the House that, despite all the many and worthy calls for priority with regard to government resources, this issue will continue to be a priority in order to provide prospects and hope for young people?

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