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Families Against Suicide Today

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

The Petition of Members of FAST (Families Against Suicide Today),

Declares that FAST was brought together by Patti Boyle whose son Kevin left home at 12.30 pm on 12 October 2011 after telling her he was going to work and that 101 days later his remains were found in a local area known as “Happy Valley”; further that Kevin had purchased an online suicide kit to complete his death from a website which described death as “Deliverance”; further that the Petitioners marched on 30 August 2012 from Kevin’s grave in Burren, Co. Down to Westminster to highlight Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998 the “Right to Life”.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to close down websites assisting suicide and to prosecute those who commit the crime of aiding and abetting suicide.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Ms Margaret Ritchie, Official Report, 5 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 962.]


Observations from the Secretary of State for the Justice Department:

Every suicide is tragic and the impact of suicide can be devastating for all those affected especially family and friends. We have the deepest sympathy for those who have been bereaved in this way.

The Government are committed to suicide prevention. “Preventing suicide in England: A cross-Government outcomes strategy to save lives” was published on 10 September 2012. The new strategy—the first in more than 10 years—reflects concerns about misuse of the internet to promote suicide and suicide methods, and the Government’s commitment to continue working with the internet industry in the UK to keep young people safe online and to promote access to positive support for suicidal people. A similar strategy, “Protect Life—A Shared Vision” which was refreshed in June 2012, exists in Northern Ireland.

Misuse of the internet to encourage vulnerable people to take their own lives is rightly to be condemned absolutely. The internet, though, provides an opportunity to reach out to vulnerable individuals who may otherwise be reluctant to seek information, help or support from other agencies. It can develop and expand the availability of sources of support to vulnerable people online and can also encourage major organisations that provide content in the most popular parts of the internet (such as social networking sites and search engine providers) to develop responsible practices which reduce the availability of harmful content and promote sources of support.

The UK supports a self-regulatory model for the internet industry and any Government intervention has to be light touch, very fast, proportionate and effective. Legislation can rarely adapt and change quickly enough to respond to the constantly evolving online environment. But what is illegal offline is illegal online and there are specific laws in place. The Suicide Act 1961, for example, has been simplified and modernised with concerns about the links made between suicide and the internet very much in mind.

Under section 2(1) of the 1961 Act (as amended by section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) it is an offence in England and Wales to do an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person with the intention to so encourage or assist. (There are equivalent provisions in section 13 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 which was amended by section 60 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 in the same terms as the Suicide Act 1961 was amended by section 59.) The person committing the offence need not know the other person or even be able to identify them which, in the context of the internet, is an important point. He may be prosecuted whether or not a suicide or attempted suicide takes place. Similarly, any person making a posting to an online chat room or a social networking site which intentionally encourages another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide may be guilty of an offence.

Prosecution of those who intentionally encourage or assist suicide is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service. Under section 2(4) of the 1961 Act no prosecution for an offence under section 2(1) may be brought except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). As with all criminal offences, each case is reviewed individually in the light of all the available evidence and in accordance with the general “Code for Crown Prosecutors” before deciding whether or not a prosecution should be brought.

The DPP’s “Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide” (published in February 2010) sets out the factors which, in addition to those set out in the general Code, prosecutors in England and Wales will consider when deciding whether or not it is in the public interest to prosecute in cases of encouraging or assisting suicide. One of the public interest factors tending in favour of prosecution is that

“the suspect was unknown to the victim and encouraged or assisted the victim to commit or attempt to commit suicide by providing specific information via, for example, a website or publication”.

The law applies when the act that constitutes the encouragement or assistance is committed in England and Wales. However, most, if not all, of the websites causing concern are hosted outside the UK so there are significant issues of jurisdiction and enforcement which would prevent successful prosecution.

The vast majority of UK internet service providers take a responsible approach to what content they host, both of their own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. They will readily take down any websites under their control when notified that the sites contain illegal material; and, even if the material is not illegal, they are free to restrict access to harmful or inappropriate material in accordance with their “acceptable use” policies and procedures. Search engines produce the Samaritans helpline number as the first return on suicide related searches. Moreover, as indicated above, most offending sites are based overseas and so outside the control of service providers here. There are also significant technological challenges and there is a difficult balance to be struck between reducing the availability of harmful material and permitting and promoting the positive contribution that the internet can provide for those seeking help and support to overcome suicidal feelings.

In short this is a complex issue and there is no easy or quick fix. But we will continue to work with industry and our partners to tackle the harms associated with the internet and do all that we can to protect vulnerable people online.

The industry has already worked on positive initiatives in this area. The Samaritans have, for example, worked with search engines and social media sites to ensure that ready access is provided to trusted suicide prevention and support services. And, in March 2011, Facebook launched a facility through which members can flag a friend’s profile if they are concerned that they may be at risk of attempting suicide. All of these reports are sent to a specialist team of Facebook moderators who review all such referrals as they are received. Where a person is in immediate danger, Facebook notifies both the police and the Samaritans who are able to respond rapidly.

The Minister for Care Services will shortly be hosting a roundtable meeting with industry representatives to explore what further progress industry-led initiatives can make in helping to prevent children and young people from accessing harmful suicide and self-harm related internet content. And the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) is making significant progress in increasing the availability and take-up of parental controls, aimed at restricting children’s access to all forms of harmful content.