HL Deb 23 July 1998 vol 592 cc1035-8

3.18 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many people since April 1992 have committed suicide in prisons managed by the commercial sector.

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

My Lords, since April 1992 there have been 19 apparent self-inflicted deaths of prisoners in custody in contractually-managed prisons. I understand that inquest verdicts have been returned on 12 of those deaths: 10 were suicides and two were accidental deaths.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he explain why the staffing ratio in private sector prisons is less than in publicly-managed prisons? Does he accept that the very high prison population results in prison officers being unable to provide adequate care to those who may have a suicidal tendency? What is the Government's plan in relation to housing prisoners near to their homes and in relation to mentally ill offenders who may have a depressive illness and may be a suicide risk?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, staff ratios vary according to the regime in a particular prison and the type of prisoner in it. I take the noble Lord's point about imprisoning prisoners close to their homes. Unfortunately, one finds that the suicide rate in prisons is larger in local prisons, partly because it is found that suicide among prisoners, which everyone regrets, tends to occur in the very early stages of incarceration, whether on remand or following sentence. Prison officers are trained to be aware of suicide risks. There are a number of schemes which have been developed, and which are still being developed, with various organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, to make sure that suicide risks are identified as soon as possible when a prisoner is taken into custody.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, as regards the latter part of the Minister's reply, can he confirm that the Prison Service policy of having trained suicide-awareness teams applies to the prisons in the private sector as well as to HM Prison Service establishments? Can he also confirm that a majority of the suicides which the noble Lord mentioned—that is, 17—were not convicted offenders at all, but were on remand awaiting trial or sentence?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly many were on remand. It is a very serious problem indeed. As regards the specific question about private prisons, Doncaster prison, for instance, was the subject of a report published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in October 1996. He particularly commended the systems of management of healthcare and suicide prevention, so there is no distinction in the quality that one aims to provide in this context between private prisons and publicly-run prisons.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in a civilised society one death of this kind in prison is one too many? Does he further agree that, while there is a real issue of prison needing to be a deterrent and a punishment, the biggest challenge of all is the process of rehabilitation to full and positive citizenship and that has to start on day one of internment? In that context, does my noble friend also agree that there is a cultural issue to be tackled here in the entire Prison Service in which, of course, there are very many prison officers who serve with distinction and commitment which would challenge us all?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, even one death is one too many. The apparent rise in the rate of suicide in custody has generally mirrored a similar rise in similar age groups throughout the community. I dare say that the reasons for that are manifold and subtle and I cannot pretend to pinpoint all of them. My noble friend Lord Judd is right. We have to have constructive regimes in prison. When I repeated the Statement that Mr. Straw made in another place quite recently in your Lordships' House, I pointed out that extra funding was going to be made available to increase the target of productive activity from 22.5 hours a week to 24 hours a week, which is an important start.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us accept what he said a few moments ago that the most difficult area lies in local prisons? Is he aware also that many of us have seen over-staffing in some prisons? Does he agree that under-staffing raises particularly difficult issues in prisons because, by definition, the governor, or whoever is in charge of the establishment, does not have the staff to keep watch on the most vulnerable prisoners? Will he guarantee that this particular matter is looked at with some care?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly under-staffing is a distinct problem, not only as regards the numbers of staff, but their quality. Dealing with potentially suicidal prisoners is a very difficult skill to acquire. That is undoubtedly a problem. I can tell your Lordships that that is under review. Any remedy for reducing the suicide rate is something that we all take most seriously.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that both as regards suicide and many other prison problems, it is overcrowding which lies at the root of them? In those circumstances, can he give the House any kind of hope that there will be a substantial reduction in the prison population through the introduction of other methods for the treatment of offenders than incarceration which so often leads to further offences?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a number of distinct points there. Sometimes over-crowding is a contributory factor; sometimes prisoners prefer to share a cell because they like human company during the day. I do not put that forward frivolously: it is a fact. Of course, we want to reduce the prison population. That should occur reasonably soon when we have the managed return from custody to the community, about which I spoke to your Lordships some months ago. That should reduce the demand for places to some extent next year. Ultimately we have to look at this problem across the whole spectrum and that is the whole rationale behind the Crime and Disorder Bill; namely, that we stop people going to prison by helping them not to offend in the first place and use non-custodial remedies before they get within the custodial system.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the welcome that his last utterance will have among those who wish to see a reduction in the suicide rate in prison and in the number of prisoners? Is it not too late to intervene by preventing re-offending or by trying to deter by punishment so many thousands of young people who could be saved from getting into crime at all by early intervention? Is the noble Lord aware how warmly that intervention on his part will be received?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful for what the noble Lord has said. I believe that the general welcome that has been given to the Crime and Disorder Bill comes entirely from the factors which he has identified; namely, that one intervenes early, productively and helpfully to stop children getting into the continuous cycle of further offending, without effective intervention by the state, so that they end up in a dustbin, which is what prison is for many.

Forward to