HL Deb 22 April 1991 vol 528 cc7-9

2.55 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make a statement on the death of Mr. Edward Robinson at HM Prison, Brixton.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the coroner's inquest found that Mr. Robinson killed himself in circumstances brought about by lack of care. I greatly regret that in this case mistakes were made which meant that a vulnerable man did not receive the care which he needed. The recommendations which were made by the coroner are being addressed by the Prison Service and other agencies as a matter of urgency.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Southwark coroner, Sir Montague Levine, described the circumstances of this case as involving a series of administrative blunders that at times belied credulity? Will the Minister indicate that when there is, as indeed there will be, a thorough inquiry into the circumstances, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who has recently published a report on suicide in prisons, will be involved in it?

Can the Minister say why this man was in prison in the first place? Is he aware that he was known to be a paranoid psychotic? Is it not obvious that he should have been in a mental hospital? If he had been in a mental hospital he would probably be alive today. Can the Minister explain why he was not sent to a mental hospital?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I fully accept that this is a distressing case. Sir Montague Levine finished the inquest only on 5th April. We have already implemented plans for improving communication between the court and the prison and between two prisons. Even before the coroner made his report we took steps to investigate the circumstances of this case and take action upon it.

The noble Lord asked about Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. I cannot tell him whether he will be immediately and personally involved in the inquiry but I am quite certain that he will be interested. As to why the gentleman concerned found himself in a prison and not in a mental hospital, the circumstances are these. He was arrested on 20th November for possession of an offensive weapon. He was remanded in Wormwood Scrubs and went next day to Clerkenwell magistrates. The doctor in Wormwood Scrubs did not find anything wrong with him. He was returned to court on 28th November where he was seen by the duty psychiatrist who, as the noble Lord rightly says, diagnosed paranoid psychosis. He could have been admitted to a mental institution under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act, which is a civil power. However that needs a psychiatrist and a social worker to apply to a hospital to take the mentally disordered patient for assessment. There was no social worker available. Therefore the only thing that could be done was to apply Section 37 of the Mental Health Act, which enables a court to send a person to a mental hospital for treatment within 28 days. That in fact was the course that was taken.

Lord Richard

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that after this man had been for the second time at court, when by then he had already been diagnosed as a paranoid psychotic and a considerable suicide risk, no notes or records about his mental state were given to prison medical officers at Brixton and his condition was not assessed by staff at the reception unit? Does he agree that that underlines the recommendation made in the Woolf report to the effect that reception procedures for prisoners who are suicide risks need looking into and indeed tightening up?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right about that. The medical papers from the court did not arrive with the individual at the prison. He only had his Section 37 warrant, which itself would have alerted people to the fact that there might have been a problem, but it would not have alerted them to the fact that he had a paranoid psychosis. Medical reports are confidential. We have now taken steps to ensure that medical reports go with the police for the person when he goes to prison. The man was placed in hospital in prison. I am bound to tell the noble Lord that it is not known whether he was seen by a doctor at the prison. The instructions are that he should be seen by a doctor within 24 hours. The doctor does not recall having seen him and there are no records about it. That matter is also being addressed, as are the matters concerning reception to which the noble Lord referred.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the case is representative of the amendments moved to the Criminal Justice Bill, and that those amendments are strongly shown to be necessary?

Earl Ferrers

I understand and know full well my noble friend's anxiety. However, I do not agree with her entirely. Before a person can go to a mental hospital under the present rules he has to be seen by a person in the mental hospital. If there were not a bed available, that might have been difficult to achieve even if the amendments had gone through. On the day in question, whether or not he had been seen by a doctor or a nurse, no bed was available.

The amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Harris, would have reduced the number of days by which a Section 37 order could have come into effect from 28 days to seven. In the case cited they would also not have had effect because by the time the seven days were up the gentleman had committed suicide.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I return to the point raised by the noble Earl's noble friend Lady Faithfull. This is not the first example. We have discussed at least a dozen cases in the past two years of tragic people who have either killed themselves or tried to kill themselves while in custody because they have been in prison rather than in a mental hospital. Is it not clear that it is most desirable to consider the matter again during the later stages of the Criminal Justice Bill to see whether we cannot improve the law and avoid such tragedies occurring?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. It is one which I share. My feeling is that it is probably the administrative arrangements which need to be addressed rather than the law. However, I shall certainly take that factor into account.