HL Deb 20 January 2003 vol 643 cc433-5

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they are doing to implement the recommendations in the report Reducing the Risk of Student Suicides.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the recommendations outlined in the report are aimed at the higher education sector as a whole and at individual higher education institutions. It is an extremely useful report. My department will encourage the NHS to offer support to higher education institutions in taking the recommendations forward.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Given the tragic loss when there is a student suicide, and the risk of copycat suicides, does the Minister feel that there should be a central database to collect data on suicides by full-time and part-time students? Data are not currently collected on part-time students. Such a database would allow the sharing of good practice. Does the Minister also agree that there should be a statutory requirement for all higher education institutions to provide student counselling services? Their provision is currently patchy in some institutions, whereas in others they are of a very high standard and have been developed with the student body as a whole.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not agree that there should be a statutory requirement. It is a matter for each higher education institution to consider the report and take action appropriately. The collecting of statistics is a matter for the higher education sector, although the NHS stands ready to help. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness and very much endorse Part 5 of the report about good practice on how higher education institutions should respond to student suicides and attempted suicides.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, in the interests of joined-up government, has the Minister considered the increased financial pressures on students foreshadowed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills recently? What representations will he make to the Secretary of State?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my right honourable friend will no doubt address the issue shortly in relation to university finances. The biggest contribution that the National Health Service can make is to ensure that at local level NHS mental health services work hand in hand with higher education institutions to offer appropriate support.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, does the Minister have any figures on whether finance or the lack of it for individual students figures highly among the reasons for suicide or attempted suicide?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not believe that there is any such evidence. Interestingly, the major reason given for student drop-outs is dissatisfaction with the course rather than the financial issues.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, I declare an interest as chief executive of Universities UK, which produced the report. Does my noble friend agree that the universities are committed to tackling the problem highlighted in the report? Does he also agree that adequate support, including funding, is essential to ensure that the training of personal tutors and other staff involved becomes central to their continuing professional development?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I certainly agree that the training of staff is very important. Personal tutors and counselling services have a big role to play in universities. The points made in Part 4 of the report on training and awareness-raising are particularly appropriate. I commend that to individual institutions.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, I have an involvement at a distance in the issue. Does the Minister agree that one problem in this sad area is that, after a suicide, the reasons remain incomprehensible to everybody involved?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is an apposite point. That is why the report's recommendation encouraging the training of staff in awareness identification is so important. I understand that 80 per cent of higher education institutions have set up working groups to look at their policy in relation to mental health studies. I am sure that they will wish to examine that point and take it forward.

Baroness Noakes

My Lords, what resources will the NHS dedicate to deliver the Government's national suicide prevention strategy? If the Minister cannot answer that, how can he be sure that the strategy will be delivered?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, of course the strategy is important, and one expects it to be funded out of the allocation given to the National Health Service. As for mental health services generally, we intend that £329 million be invested over three years to 2003–4. Since the introduction of the National Health Service Framework, there has been considerable development in our mental health services. That includes development of assertive outreach teams, counselling services, helplines and an increase in the number of spare beds.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister a question, as there is time? How much have suicides in further education institutions gone up in the last few years?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the figures given in the Universities UK report show that in 1994–95 there were 174 full-time student deaths. That rose to 178 by 1997–98, although I do not believe that the increase is statistically significant. What it seems to show is that the number of suicides in universities is not particularly out of line with the number among young people generally. That does not mean to say that universities ought not to give particular focus to the problem.

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