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Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the reported rise in the number of people committing suicide.

My Lords, one suicide is too many suicides. That is why we published a cross-government suicide prevention workplan in 2019, are investing £57 million in suicide prevention in the NHS, are rolling out suicide prevention plans across the country and are committed to working with charities such as the Samaritans and the Zero Suicide Alliance.

I thank the Minister for his reply and what the Government are doing. Unfortunately, male suicides are the worst they have been for two decades. There is particular concern among men between the ages of 45 and 49, and suicide is the highest form of death for those under 50. It is a particular concern in areas of Yorkshire and Humber. In his latest book, Professor Michael Sandel argues that this is part of a wider malaise in society. In a highly competitive society such as ours, there are those left behind without any sense of value, dignity or self-esteem. Will the Minister encourage the suicide strategy advisory group to look at what Michael Sandel has said and its implications for government policy?

The noble and right reverend Lord is entirely right that suicide is an awful form of death. Each one is worth regret, but the numbers are more complicated than he suggests, as the definitions of suicides and the coroner’s assignment of the suicide definition has changed in the period he describes. While we are all concerned about society, I am not sure I entirely agree with his sombre analysis of society’s values. I have a more optimistic outlook than he perhaps does. The Government’s suicide prevention programme entirely addresses the concerns of individuals and is, I believe, having a powerful effect.

Recently published figures show an alarming, significant increase in suicides among young people, even boys and girls aged 10. Those were pre-Covid statistics. Those statistics are heartbreaking and, I think we all agree, inexcusable. Does my noble friend believe that the social media companies are really owning up to their responsibilities in combating abuse and bullying online? Are we owning up to our responsibilities in schools to educate children about the safe use of social media and to pass on to them the wisdom and support they need?

My noble friend is entirely right to raise concerns about the role of social media in rising suicide rates among young people. We are doing an enormous amount to protect young people, incentivising every school to identify a senior lead for mental health, creating new mental health support teams and piloting a four-week waiting time to allow swifter access to specialist NHS care. We are also taking on the social media companies and demanding that they step up to their responsibilities.

My Lords, suicides in any section of our society are a tragedy, but I draw the Minister’s attention to suicides among veteran members of the Armed Forces. Evidence from the charity Veterans United Against Suicide suggests that around 69 veterans died by their own hand in 2018, 59 in 2019 and around 37 so far this year. Does the Minister agree that informal evidence is not a reliable basis for understanding the extent of this problem? Would it not be better to once again press the coroner service, when recording a verdict of death by suicide, to note whether the deceased was a military veteran?

The noble Lord is entirely right to raise the issue of veterans, who have an incredible and alarmingly high rate of suicide, one that I regret enormously. We are working closely with veterans’ charities to provide the kind of mental health support that veterans need but, all too often, that does not prove enough. His request for greater data from coroners is an idea I will take back to the department, chase down and write to him about.

My Lords, these are unpropitious times for ordinary people. Lockdown has increased the incidence of loneliness and we are hearing more tales about domestic abuse. With the furlough scheme ending soon, we have worries about the world of work and joblessness. There are increased referrals for mental health problems, and the National Union of Students tells us about the well-being of students, in these uncertain times, as they face a new university session. These all bring their own worries and pressures. All these factors might create a climate in which we see, tragically, the rate of suicides climbing.

Meanwhile, the Government are beset on all sides by energy-sapping programmes to do with the economy, health and education—and Brexit looms. We heard of the loss of a senior law officer just this morning. We have heard about the ambitious programmes of the Government, as outlined by the Minister. Can he assure us that keeping them running and in proper focus will be manageable, given all the other things the Government are being dragged down by, largely as a result of their own ineptitude?

My Lords, ministerial claims to have the lowest suicide rate for seven years, in the fourth report, do not accord with the latest ONS figures from 1 September this year. These show that, at 16.9 per 100,000, England has the highest suicide rate since 2000, with an increase each year since the new strategy began in 2017. Alarmingly, my own region of Yorkshire and Humber has consistently had the highest suicide rate anywhere in the United Kingdom for a decade. What steps are the Government taking to evaluate their existing strategy and produce consistent statistics? What proportion of the £25 million allocated to local suicide prevention plans has been spent in Yorkshire and Humber?

I remind the noble Lord that, in July 2018, the standard of proof used by coroners to determine whether a death was caused by suicide was lowered from criminal to civil. That has had a meaningful effect on the number of suicides recorded. I am afraid the numbers for Yorkshire and Humber are not available to me.

My Lords, we need to return to statistics. Last week, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that new figures from the ONS showed that the number of suicides in England fell during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Could the Minister confirm to the House that this was mistaken? While the figures cited by the Health Secretary are the latest reported by the ONS, the ONS also clearly said that those figures

“cannot be used to show the number of suicides with a date of death in 2020, including those that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

It is likely, it continues, that it

“reflects delays to inquests … due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

As government statistics show, the last time the suicide rate was this high was 1988. I would like to know what government resources are being applied to this and that they will not be cut back.

The noble Baroness refers to recent statistics, which are, as she rightly points out, subject to change, as coroners’ investigations land on the desk at PHE. I reassure her that the statistics suggest a difference between stress and anxiety, and clinical mental health issues. It seems that one aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has not translated into a massive mental health tsunami, as feared. This is hugely encouraging and a great relief. None the less, we are committed to the mental health support that the Government provide, and continue to support charities such as the Samaritans and CALM, including through the £9.2 million recently given to them for suicide prevention and support.

My Lords, sadly, self-harm is a major risk factor for future suicide and is growing among young people. Later this month, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention will be publishing a report of its inquiry looking at the support available for young people who self-harm. Having been closely involved in this inquiry, I ask the Minister whether he will commit to the Government looking seriously at its findings, which were informed by young people who had self-harmed, and to responding in due course.

The noble Baroness is entirely right that self-harm is an alarming, distressing and rising phenomenon among young people. I welcome the report that she describes, and commit to having a good look at it, when it is published.

Sitting suspended.