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Prisoner Suicides

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

9. How many suicides occurred in prisons in England and Wales between March 2006 and March 2007; and if he will make a statement. (202052)

There were 73 apparent self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007.

Does the Minister recognise that from Leeds to Lewes and from Cardiff to Chelmsford the number of prison suicides continues to rise? In 2007, there were 92 such deaths—an increase of 37 per cent. When will the Government take action to ensure that our prisons are appropriately staffed and that there are enough suicide-watch cells available, so that we can reduce that increasing figure?

Of course I take careful note of the trends that develop over time in respect of that issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that random fluctuations occur, and that year-on-year figures are not the best way of following underlying trends, whereas three-yearly figures are. However, one suicide in prison is one too many. All the staff in the Prison Service—everybody working on the issue—and I are doing our utmost to improve the capacity that we all have to defend and protect the people concerned, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, from the impulse to do themselves harm.

It should be remembered that good care and support from staff save many, many lives, but such instances are under-reported or unreported. Prison staff are at the front line in trying to make sure that we reduce the number of suicides and self-inflicted deaths in prison. They go a good job generally, but we deal with a difficult and vulnerable population, many of whom wish to do themselves harm. We must redouble our efforts, and that is my intention.

The Secretary of State for Justice famously said recently that he was not losing any sleep over the parlous state of overcrowding in the prison estate. It is in the most overcrowded prisons that the suicides tend to happen. There were 800 suicides between 1997 and 2007. While the Secretary of State was not losing his sleep, individual prisoners were losing their lives. Will the Minister please apply her mind to breaking the back of overcrowding? Although prisoners deserve to be in prison, they should not be placed in such circumstances—about 75 per cent. of them have at least two mental illnesses—that they are driven to take their own lives or self-harm in huge numbers. It is no good this complacent Government displaying a complacent attitude while the criminal justice system is in the state that they have presided over.

I absolutely reject the charge that any complacency whatever is displayed by the Government or by Ministers in the Ministry of Justice in respect of prison suicide and self-harm. We are working extremely hard with the Prison Service staff and those in safer custody units across the prison estate to try to minimise the impact of self-harm, suicide and self-inflicted deaths on individuals, many of whom are extremely vulnerable and go into prison with risk factors. It is a complex area. I do not believe that there is any direct evidence that overcrowding in itself leads to increased numbers of deaths, although clearly some aspects of overcrowding can lead to increased distress in individual circumstances. These are individual matters, but it is absolutely not the case, and I reject the suggestion, that the Government or the ministerial team are complacent about the matter.