HL Deb 24 November 1997 vol 583 cc750-3

3.7 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government: How many prisoners in England and Wales have taken their own lives in the financial year 1997-98 so far, and of these, how many were male remand prisoners under the age of 21.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, 48 prisoners in England and Wales have taken their own lives since 1st April 1997, including one male remand prisoner under the age of 21.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does not that indicate that there has been a further steep increase in the rate of self-inflicted deaths since the start of this year? Bearing in mind that only 27 per cent. of the prisoners who took their own lives in the last financial year were being monitored at the time of their death, do we not have to admit that our identification of those at risk is not very reliable? Can the Minister say whether any of the 18 young men under 21 who suffered self-inflicted death in the past year were being monitored at the time and whether, in view of this tragic loss of life, the Government will ask the recently appointed assistant director for young prisoners to address the question of prevention as a matter of the highest priority, taking into consideration that at the Army's institution for young offenders there have been no self-inflicted deaths in the past five years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, during the past 10 years the overall trend as regards suicide has been an annual increase of 6 to 8 per cent. However, against the rise in the prison population, of which your Lordships are well aware, during the past three years the number of deaths has reduced slightly from 127 to 116 per 100,000. So far, 64 prisoner have died. If sustained, that would be a rate of 118. The noble Lord raised some further matters. I appreciate that there were more than two questions but these are sufficiently serious matters for me to deal with them. Of course the assistant director will have this very much in mind. It is an extremely important question. The noble Lord asked whether the young men who died were being monitored. They would have been monitored, but plainly the monitoring failed. I say with all candour that I know of no monitoring system that will ever bring about a situation where no inmate in a custodial institution is unable to take his or her life.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the Howard League report on young offenders, Banged up, Beaten up, Cutting up, which was produced by a committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws? Does he accept the concern expressed in the report that prison overcrowding is making it increasingly difficult to protect prisoners from other prisoners? In particular, does he accept the recommendation of the report that prisoners should no longer be allowed to keep razor blades in their cells?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am aware of the contents of that report. There is no evidence that overcrowding of itself results in an increase in suicide. There is a large number of prisoners who prefer to share cells because it mitigates the loneliness and boredom of the day. Obviously, the Government are paying particular attention to the Kennedy Report, as they are to other reports. The fact that the Director of the Prison Service, Mr. Richard Tilt, recently recirculated the useful document Caring for the Suicidal in Custody demonstrates that this issue is treated with great seriousness.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the pioneering work of the Children's Society in its remand and rescue initiative, which is officially launched today, has secured the release from remand of over 50 youngsters in the first six months and that that demonstrates many more young people on remand could be supervised in the community and thus be at far less risk of suicide, self-harm, bullying and criminal contamination?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for that question and also for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of it so that I might do useful research. The Government believe that the initiative which the right reverend Prelate has specified, and the work of NACRO's juvenile remand review group, are very helpful in assisting the court with information when it makes remand decisions. The youth justice reform programme, to which reference was made earlier to your Lordships, will include measures for improving the delivery of youth justice services. One of the extremely important proposals which cannot be over-stressed will include placing a statutory duty on local authorities to provide appropriate access to youth justice services, which will include bail support. Accordingly, that should help the pressures on the juvenile remand system as well as on the wider prison estate.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that these appalling figures are due to the equally appalling conditions in which remand prisoners are still kept in England and Wales? Does he further agree that 18 years ago the May Report condemned the conditions of remand prisoners as being unacceptable? Those conditions are exactly the same today, but twice as bad, because of the canker, as it has been called, of overcrowding. Will the Minister tell the House whether this Government are as complacent as the last one was about this appalling blot on the penal system in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I well remember reading the admirable report which Sir John May produced, as the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, pointed out, several years ago. Remand suicides form over half the total number of deaths. It is an extremely difficult problem. This Government are not complacent. As your Lordships will know, I repeated, with the leave of the House, a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary which dealt specifically with returning prisoners who are at the end of their sentences to the community on the basis of electronic tagging. That is a useful, partial first step to deal with these problems. There can be no doubt that there are problems. It is wholly untrue to suggest that this Government are complacent.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, bearing in mind that it will take several years to provide the institutions for young people on remand outside the prison system, will the Government consider extending the electronic bracelet system, which the Home Secretary has announced will be proposed for people approaching the end of their sentences, to those young people on remand who are most at risk?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we are eager to look at every practical step that there may be to reduce unnecessary remand prison population. If the tagging system works, subject to the proviso that public safety is properly secured, we shall attend to it.