HC Deb 21 July 1998 vol 316 cc894-6
2. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

What action he is taking to reduce the number of prison suicides. [49915]

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office (Mr. Henry McLeish)

A revised suicide management strategy was introduced in all Scottish prisons last month and is being underpinned by an injection of some £1 million to improve the supervision of at-risk prisoners. A special task force will look in detail at the deaths that have occurred this year to consider what factors were involved and whether lessons may be learned.

Sir Robert Smith

I thank the Minister for that answer. He answered much of my question 12 days ago, after it was tabled but before he could reply in the House. Does he recognise that, in the long term, we must tackle prison overcrowding and the pressures and problems that it creates? In the spirit of what the Secretary of State said in the Scottish Grand Committee about setting targets by which the Government feel they should be judged, does the Minister have any targets by which the House can judge the Government's performance on delivering prison reform?

Mr. McLeish

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's continuing interest in home affairs. We have a suicide prevention strategy in place in Scotland, but we are keen to underpin it with improvements in staffing and medical facilities. We are creating a further residential care unit in Barlinnie prison. Overcrowding is a problem and means that we cannot spend enough time with individual prisoners. That is why there will be further reforms in the Prison Service to overcome the problem. We are also pursuing a radical programme of alternatives to custody to provide appropriate alternatives for sheriffs in every court in the country. Properly used, they will provide more appropriate care, treatment and punishment while easing the burden of overcrowding in prisons which is having a detrimental effect on our ability to tackle suicide and drugs.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I welcome this initiative. I need hardly remind my hon. Friend that several suicides have taken place at Greenock prison. May I impress on him the need for careful assessment during the admission phase, particularly for remand prisoners? In Greenock, most of those who committed suicide were remand prisoners. Assessment of new prisoners should be carried out carefully and in a controlled way.

Mr. McLeish

There is a problem with risk assessment when prisoners enter prison. For example, Barlinnie turns around 200 prisoners on a Monday. That is an enormous problem. Investment is being put into prisons to ensure modern medical assessment of the risks. I am concerned that, over the past few months, there have been a tremendous number of suicides at Corton Vale, Barlinnie, Greenock and Longriggend. The Government are taking decisive action to try to tackle that problem. There can never be a guarantee that we can exclude suicide or people harming themselves in prisons, but we have an ambitious programme. I sincerely hope that what we are doing will work.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What is the number of suicides per head of the prison population in Scottish prisons compared with that in England and Wales? Is it higher or lower? Can the Minister explain the reasons for the difference?

Mr. McLeish

The figure is much higher. It is one of the problems and it has reinforced our resolve to tackle this issue with determination. Suicide is a complex issue which causes despair to staff and families. We are keen to try to analyse what is happening, but there is a higher incidence of suicide in prisons in Scotland than in England. That is not in itself a reason for being interested in doing something about it, but it shows that we have much to do in Scotland. We are putting in place the proper procedures. They need time to work. I assure the hon. Lady that we are doing everything possible to make it possible to reduce the number of suicides and to give prisons the confidence to start dealing with prisoners as they should.