HL Deb 17 March 2005 vol 670 cc1431-3
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking in response to the verdict in the inquest on the death of Sarah Campbell.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, there have been continuous improvements made at Styal prison and young offender institution since Sarah Campbell's tragic death on 18 January 2003. The inquest into Sarah's death was heard by the coroner for Cheshire, Nicholas Rheinberg, and was concluded on 24 January this year. After the inquest, Mr Rheinberg wrote under coroners' rule 43 and the Minister for Correctional Services, Paul Goggins, will be replying.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. There is concern that an increasingly large number of women are dying from self-inflicted deaths in prison. The number has risen even faster than the number of women sent to prison. How can we be confident that the advice from coroners and from the prisons ombudsman over quite a long period on the need for special monitoring of fragile prisoners during the first few days of their sentences, and the criticisms of procedures within prisons, particularly with regard to the self-harm and suicide form, have had the desired effect? Have the Government considered whether the Dutch experience of sentencing women, or the new Scottish approach with its pilot study in Glasgow, could be studied with the possibility of following those examples in England?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we have positive responses to many of the points that the noble Baroness has covered. Pilots—one for men and one for women—are under way on intermittent sentences, which follows learning from the Dutch practice. The old self-harm at-risk form and programme have been modified as a result of what we have learnt from the Scottish experience. A new procedure for the assessment of care in custody and teamwork for the care of at-risk prisoners is now coming into force. The noble Baroness is right to say that the deaths in prison among women are small in absolute numbers. but are two to three times the rate for men in prison. A large number of unreported resuscitations occur each year in our prisons. In 2002, 154 were carried out following self-harm incidents.

There have been specific improvements at Styal following the deaths. At that prison, there were six deaths in a 12-month period. Procedures have been changed, different training processes have been introduced and since April 2004 the prisons ombudsman conducts all death-in-custody investigations. That has been put on a statutory basis.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Sarah Campbell was one of many drug-dependent women in prison. Probably one-half of all women in prison are seriously drug-dependent. Does he agree with me that to offer drug treatment as an alternative would be a good option for many of them and would provide a way out of their lives of drugs, crime and imprisonment, which is a vicious circle? If so, will he confirm that there are only 17 women-only residential drug treatment places in the whole of England and Wales?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Baroness has put her finger on some key aspects. The reality is that some 70 per cent of women who enter custody need detoxification. That may not be the reason they are in custody, but it is a key factor. Purely coincidentally, today the prisons Minister, Paul Goggins, is opening the first-night centre at Styal prison. That is a key factor.

The statistics on how long people have been in custody before they self-harm, in the sense of completing the exercise or being saved from it, show that it is quite a short period. More work needs to be done on that aspect. In some ways it would be quite inappropriate in terms of central policy, but I have to say that Sarah was not in prison for a drug-related conviction, although there were drug-related aspects to it and she died of an overdose. As regards drug offences, 35 per cent of women in custody at the moment—some 1,200—are in prison as a result of drug offences.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no room for complacency, and that in a high profile prison like Holloway, suicide attempts occur almost nightly?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, there have been some. I am not in any way negating what happens in Holloway, but some quite extravagant claims were made that half a dozen people were being cut down every night. The evidence did not back that up. Nevertheless, work is going on in Holloway to create safe cells. Of course, such cells are automatically designed in to new prisons, but they are not in older prisons. Safe cells are being created which makes it much more difficult—although not impossible—for people to commit self-harm.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House why only 17 places are available for women with drug problems? How many of these women have young families for which they are responsible and which might very well contribute to their self-harming?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, work is taking place. The self-inflicted death rate per thousand women is three times the rate of men, for which there have to be reasons. First, the distance that women have to travel to prison is 60 miles which, on average, is about 10 miles further than men. Virtually 70 per cent of women entering prison, as I have said, require detoxification of some kind of opiates, alcohol and other substances, which is a serious issue.

We need to provide a better process, which is why we are bringing assessment care into the action plan for the care of at-risk prisoners once they are identified. I cannot give a specific reason for why there are only 17—I may not accept that—but work is taking place to create more safe cells and, at Styal, to create a first-night unit so that people are treated differently in the first few hours when they enter prison, particularly women who may have been separated from their families and to whom prison may have come as somewhat of a surprise. On the other hand—I am not negating the fact—one has to consider why women are entering custody. The urban myth that the majority are in prison for shoplifting is simply not true.