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Investigation of Suicides

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

It is with delight that I appear before you, Mr Crausby, as I know that you take a particular interest in this matter. This debate has been prompted by my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, and is based on the testimonies that I have heard from families bereaved by suicide. I will raise two key issues in the short time that I have. The first involves how police officers interact with bereaved families, and the second involves how suicides are investigated, most notably where the internet may be a factor. I will make eight clear requests for change, which I ask the Minister to consider.

Suicide is a tragedy for the individual who takes their own life, and it brings long-term distress for the family and friends left behind. For every suicide, six people close to the person who died—in England and Wales, that means 30,000 people each year—will experience a deep sense of grief. Families bereaved by suicide inevitably find themselves in direct contact with the authorities. In many cases, a knock at the door by a police officer informs them of what has happened.

Families touched by suicide can suffer a greater stigma than is attached to other forms of death, and they may avoid reaching out for support. They are vulnerable. As the Government’s draft suicide prevention strategy notes, family members are approximately two and a half times more likely to take their own life after the suicide of a close relative.

At a recent meeting of the all-party group, we considered bereavement. Many spoke about their initial contact with the authorities. I will share one statement:

“The police who dealt with my son immediately following his death were, as I would have expected, matter-of-fact but kind and sympathetic to the family. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them to have to deal with a family like ours who are expressing a mixture of utter shock, bewilderment, hysteria, and sheer terror when a family member takes their own life. It happened late in the evening, and by the time the police had left around midnight, it was dark and cold and trying to get children to sleep, let alone ourselves, was impossible.

The following day, another policeman arrived to take statements. He again did his job well and with sympathy. However, I found the whole event very distressing, and it would have been very helpful if someone had been there—a trained counsellor—to help us through this process, to offer some comfort and attempt to give us some level of understanding as to what had just happened. As it was there was no one. No one gave us the ‘Help is at Hand’ booklet, no one gave us any numbers to call. Nothing.”

I recommend that the Minister read the work of Dr Sharon McDonnell, or at least that one of his team read it. She is at the university of Manchester and has researched how health professionals and police officers interact with bereaved families. For her PhD, she interviewed bereaved families, finding that eight out of nine participants informed by the police reported feeling distressed, traumatised and angry at how they had been informed. Dr McDonnell is seeking funding for further research in the area. I urge the Minister to discuss not only the changes that she has identified as necessary but how we can move forward and ensure that we change families’ experience.

None of the families with whom I have had contact ever received a copy of “Help is at Hand”. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is aware of the booklet to which I refer. It is a Department of Health document offering advice for those bereaved by suicide or other traumatic deaths. It includes contacts for support groups and covers practical matters such as the inquest procedure and methods for dealing with grief. Sadly, that invaluable resource is being wasted through patchy distribution and a lack of awareness.

Last year, when I took part in the police service parliamentary scheme with South Wales police, I was already aware of the expertise of officers across my constituency on the issue, and I take this opportunity to commend them. However, away from Bridgend, I was concerned by the lack of guidance that individual officers appeared to receive on how to deal with families and media inquiries. It left me wondering whether standard guidance and training for police officers exist or whether it is left to chance.

In the first instance, investigations of a death are steered by the murder investigation manual, which is employed for investigation into unexplained deaths. After criminality has been ruled out, the manual no longer applies. Apparently, it is left to local forces to produce their own guidance on investigating non-suspicious deaths.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important issue. On police investigations, is it not important that suicide should never be presumed but that a finding must be based on evidence? For a family, suicide is a traumatic experience. Police must therefore eliminate all other possibilities in their investigations.

It is vital that the police conduct a full inquiry, but they must be aware of the sensitivity of the issue and the risks associated if the inquiry presses too much on possible family engagement or involvement in the death. I will address that later in my speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Once a suicide has been determined, it is important that the police reconnect with families to ensure that they are not left feeling that they have caused or been implicated in their relative’s death. Families have expressed a feeling of being on trial, and that feeling can resurface, particularly during the coronial process. They feel that they carry some guilt and responsibility for the death. That is the cause of the risk of trauma.

The House of Commons Library undertook research on my behalf into what guidance is available to police forces, but it drew a significant blank. Although I plan to meet the lead on the issue from the Association of Chief Police Officers, will the Minister examine how advice and guidance can be issued by the Home Office to bring consistency to the investigations carried out by police forces after a death has been recognised as suicide? Will he examine the training provided to police officers on the difficult role that they play in breaking the traumatic news of a death to families, the sensitivity of gathering information to further their inquiries and the need to provide support and information to the bereaved? In particular, will he ensure that all front-line police officers are made aware of “Help is at Hand” and that families access it as a matter of course?

Families have also suggested that, in the event of a suicide, an immediate response plan should be put in place, bringing them into contact with someone with professional training to help them through the first few days and weeks and to give practical advice. As the first responders, the police often seem to be the trigger for generating such support. In addition, families propose that, in the first few days after a suicide, local agencies should work together to share information, agree lines of communication and ensure that lessons are learned. I can tell the Minister that it happens in my constituency, where it works extremely well and is very effective.

Australia leads the world on police and media communications after suicide. The all-party group heard from Professor Jane Pirkis, a leading expert in suicide research from Australia, about a programme called Mindframe designed to equip police officers with the necessary skills for dealing with the media. Officers are issued with a small card to keep in their wallet offering advice about appropriate language to use and how best to deal with media inquiries. It also highlights information to be passed to families, localised to individual police forces, about local and national support services. It is simple, but it ensures a high level of consistency, which we also need to achieve. Will the Minister look at Mindframe, with a view to adapting something similar for use by police forces in England and Wales?

Not only are the police often the first agency to be involved in a suicide, but police officers are more likely to have contact with people who are distressed and may go on to take their own lives. It is estimated that as many people see a police officer in the three months before their death as see a mental health professional in the 12 months before their death. Police officers are often the authority figures with whom the suicidal are in contact before their death; they are in contact with them more often than with any other professional. Will the Minister consider how police training can be used to build awareness of suicidal behaviour, so that officers are better equipped to recognise those at risk?

Social media such as Bebo and Facebook create an additional burden for bereaved families. Photographs posted on personal sites can often be accessed by journalists. I cannot begin to say how many families I have spoken to have been distressed when they saw photographs of their relative—often photographs that they have never seen before—printed without their knowledge or permission, often on the front page of a local newspaper. A few years ago, I worked with the Home Office to provide a simple telephone contact for each social network provider for police media teams to use to close access to individual sites. Will the Minister look at that again to ensure that police forces are aware of the process and that families can be advised of that service?

My second area of concern is about the investigation of suicides, in particular where the internet may have been a factor. In the past year, I have been contacted by several bereaved families, the majority of them parents who have lost a child. The communications follow a similar pattern. In the aftermath of a suicide, it becomes apparent that the individual may have used the internet to access information on the means and methods to take their own life. They may also have been offered encouragement to do so via internet sites. In all the cases brought to me, the police have decided not to investigate the individual’s computer. The reasons are varied, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, general privacy issues, time and money—the latter becoming a growing issue as police forces face budget constraints.

Without investigation, what may amount to criminal incitement to suicide is going undetected and unchallenged. Papyrus, a suicide prevention charity that works with bereaved families, is aware of 50 cases in which the internet played a significant part in a suicide. If the police do not routinely investigate websites explored by individuals before their suicides, we will never know the real scale of the problem or what the most dangerous websites are. If the police are unwilling to investigate, surely the full facts are not being presented to the coroner. We need national guidelines for such investigations and we need police forces to investigate computers and internet use as a matter of course where there is a suspected or known suicide. Will the Minister examine the 2000 Act to see whether any aspect of the Act is seen by police forces as a prevention to further investigation of computers? Will he issue clear guidance to police forces to ensure that, at the least, the history of internet use before death is examined and notified to the coroner? That is a small task, and for an expert it takes a matter of minutes. However, most families cannot do that for themselves.

I wish to end by thanking the many police officers who have been given the awful task of investigating suicides and who have been given the even worse task of notifying the families of those who have died. In securing this debate, I have aimed to bring greater clarity and consistency for police officers and families alike. We ask a difficult task of our police officers: to be able to go on dangerous streets, to tackle violent crime and drugs, and to be able to deal with people in a high state of distress and trauma. It is important that they are given the guidance and training to do so, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to her excellent work in the prevention of suicide through her role as chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. I am sure that her efforts have helped to keep the issue at the forefront of the political and public agenda. I am aware of her particular interest in such issues, following the spate of terrible deaths of young people in her constituency a few years ago. Every suicide is a tragic event, and it is hard to imagine how traumatic an experience it must be for the bereaved family and friends.

The Government take the issue seriously, and we are committed to suicide prevention. Last July, we published a consultation on preventing suicide in England, which set out a draft cross-departmental outcomes strategy to save lives. I understand that the Welsh Government have their own national action plan to reduce suicide and self-harm in Wales.

A whole range of factors come together to increase a person’s vulnerability to self-harm or suicide. The Government are committed to ensuring that the right support is in place for individuals who find themselves in such desperate situations. As part of a range of measures to reduce the suicide rate, the draft strategy highlighted the need for continuing to support the internet industry to remove content that encourages suicide and to provide ready access to suicide prevention services—a particular concern to the hon. Lady following the deaths in Bridgend.

The consultation ended on 11 October last year and received around 200 responses from a broad range of organisations and individuals. We are now considering all the responses received and intend to publish the final strategy later this year, so the hon. Lady’s intervention and list of suggestions are timely.

Turning to the role of the police, which is the specific topic that the hon. Lady has raised, it is important to set out the different but complementary roles of the police and coroners when there has been a sudden death. The coroner is an independent judicial officer who has a statutory duty to investigate every death where he or she has reason to suspect that it may have been violent, unnatural or of an unknown cause. The police have a duty to investigate all sudden deaths. They also act as coroners’ officers and are required to collect information and evidence that will enable the coroner to determine accurately the cause of death.

The police also have a core duty to establish whether a crime has been committed. Even when a death becomes no longer suspicious and appears explainable, they have an ongoing duty to assist the coroner by collecting and recording all available evidence for an inquest. Both the coroner and the police share the view that a suicide must never just be presumed, and they are diligent in their duty to establish unambiguous evidence that the deceased had intended to take his or her own life and to rule out other possibilities.

Training on how to deal with sudden deaths, including suicide, is mandatory for all police officers. Suicide is covered in training given to officers in a range of areas, including missing persons, coroners’ investigations and inquests and domestic abuse. Some forces have developed additional advice to police officers through local guidance or protocols on the investigation of sudden or unexplained death, including suicide.

It is the responsibility of the chief officer of each force to take appropriate steps to ensure that their staff receive appropriate training. They take that responsibility seriously and are alert to the need for their officers to behave with the utmost sensitivity and support when dealing with suicide. Nevertheless, I will certainly draw to the attention of the Association of Chief Police Officers the hon. Lady’s comments about the need for some kind of national guidance; about the booklet “Help is at Hand”, distribution of which she said is patchy; and about the Australian Mindframe programme that is issued to all police officers, about which I would certainly like to find out more.

We are in the process of setting up a professional body for policing, and this area is exactly the kind that that body would look at, because it is about standards in policing. We have to strike the right balance in deciding between what is appropriate to issue national guidance on and what is a matter for the police themselves to issue guidance on. That is consistent with our policy.

We want to hold the police accountable for the outcomes that they achieve, but to be less prescriptive in terms of Government direction about what they are doing. Our ambition is the same: to improve the service that the public receive. These are clearly very sensitive matters, and although it might not be appropriate to issue national Government guidance, that does not mean that it would be inappropriate for police guidance to be issued in the future by policing professional bodies. That is a matter that we can discuss and that I am open-minded about. I am conscious that we must be careful about adding to the burden of guidance.

The police coroner interface—the process by which a death is deemed not suspicious and is passed to the coroner, and through which evidence is shared—is important, as is the role of the police and other partners and organisations in supporting bereaved relatives. We accept that practice in those areas can vary across forces. That is why these issues are currently subject to discussion and review through a number of Government-led, cross-sector forums that want to improve the practice and investigations of sudden deaths and the support given to bereaved relatives. Representatives from ACPO are playing an active part in those discussions.

In November last year, the Government announced that they intend to proceed with the implementation of the office of the chief coroner, which will provide leadership and oversight of the coroner system. Once the chief coroner is in post, ACPO intends to meet him or her to indentify and discuss these cross-cutting issues. In addition, the Ministry of Justice plans to publish its charter for coroner services shortly. For the first time in the 800 years since the office of coroner was established, that will set out the standards of service that bereaved people can expect to receive and what they can do if they are not satisfied.

The other issue that the hon. Lady raised, which is obviously very serious, is that concerns have been expressed that the police should routinely examine the computers of suicide victims to determine whether they have received online encouragement to take their own lives. Any decision to access the computer of a person who has committed suicide rests with the relevant police force. I will come back to that, but it may be helpful if I first explain briefly the relevant provisions in law that have been simplified and modernised to reflect concerns about the misuse of the internet to promote suicide.

Under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, as amended by section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, it is an offence to carry out an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person with the intention of so doing. The person committing the offence need not know the other person or even be able to identify them. Therefore, the author of a website promoting suicide and suicide methods may commit an offence if the website encourages or assists the suicide or attempted suicide of their readers and the author intends that the website will so encourage or assist them. Crucially, the law also allows that person to be prosecuted, irrespective of whether a suicide or attempted suicide takes place. Similarly, any person making a posting to an online chat room or a social networking site that intentionally encourages another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide may be guilty of offence.

The police can investigate those suspected of encouraging suicide by accessing the relevant computer and analysing the data on it after obtaining a warrant or an authorisation under the Police Act 1997 or RIPA, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Both routes would be authorised by senior police officers on the basis that the action is necessary and proportionate to detect a crime, including the crime of encouraging or assisting suicide. The 1997 Act authorisation would be necessary to open the computer and the RIPA authorisation would be necessary to examine the private information it contains. RIPA also permits the police to authorise the access of data from a communication service provider, including internet service providers, on the same basis to determine what sort of sites had been accessed or who had been in contact.

The decisions to take those actions would be a matter for the police. Neither the 1997 Act nor RIPA place any restriction on investigations into the use of the internet to encourage or assist suicide. In circumstances where the police believe that a suicide and content on the internet are linked, they might consider it appropriate to investigate the computer of the person who has committed suicide. As the hon. Lady knows, that can include the investigation of activity on social network sites, which have been thought to play a part in some incidents.

Any decision to access the computer of a person who has died following a suicide of course rests with the relevant police force. That must be done sensitively. If the bereaved family is not satisfied with the police’s actions, they can complain to the force directly. If they remain dissatisfied, they should raise any concerns with the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The hon. Lady raised a separate issue about the role of social media following a suicide and the fact that it may be possible through social media for people to access information, including photographs, in a way that distresses the family. She mentioned that some kind of protocol to address that is already in existence. I am very happy to consider that matter and examine whether that protocol is being used effectively. I can understand that a social website through which photographs are shared and available when somebody is alive and perhaps happy may take on an entirely different complexion to the family of that person if a suicide occurs. Therefore, it is desirable to be able to ensure that information that was publicly available in different circumstances cannot be misused. I am happy to consider that matter and examine how we might work with the social media providers to ensure effective action in such circumstances.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to preventing suicide, which requires co-ordination and contributions from public services and organisations, voluntary groups, the private sector and individuals. The forthcoming Government strategy will play an important part in helping to prevent vulnerable people from taking their own lives and in supporting those who have been bereaved following suicides. The Government are ensuring that we have a support framework in place, so that the right help is available to those who are at risk of suicide. Furthermore, the existing legal framework ensures that the police have sufficient powers to investigate sudden deaths and to support the work of the coroner.

I will ensure that we study the hon. Lady’s speech carefully, so that all the issues that she has raised are picked up, as we consider the publication of the strategy and the responses to it. If necessary, I will write to her to set out what more we think we might need to do. I certainly do not want her to think that I am not taking seriously her request that there should be national guidance in this respect, but I am conscious of the background of the burden of national guidance that has been coming from the Home Office on a range of matters. That is why the appropriate first step will be for me to discuss these issues with ACPO and find out what it believes is necessary by means of further doctrine and what it thinks the appropriate doctrine should be. The overall burden is something that concerns me; but equally, it is important to ensure proper practice.

Clearly, we will not prevent every tragedy. However, we can assure ourselves that we have done everything in our power, so that those with suicidal thoughts have somewhere to turn for support and bereaved families are treated with sensitivity by the police, who will leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of answers. I hope that that is an adequate response to the hon. Lady, given the seriousness of her concern about the matter, which I recognise.