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Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill [HL]

Volume 820: debated on Friday 25 March 2022

Third Reading

Motion

Moved by

My Lords, I shall make just one or two brief comments. I am sure everybody is greatly relieved that the timing is going so well this afternoon, and I really shall not delay your Lordships for too long, but this gives me an opportunity to say one or two brief things and then give some thanks.

The reason behind the Bill is that, seven or eight years ago, a couple came to see me, sat in my study and told me how their son had taken his life because of a gambling problem. The sad thing about that story was the way they talked about the fact that they could see what was happening. He had gone in and out of treatment, but they just could not reach out to him. They knew what was going to happen, and they watched as he slowly spiralled down until that fateful day when he took his life. That led me on a journey. Eventually, we managed to get a Select Committee here. As your Lordships may be aware, Peers for Gambling Reform is now, I think, the largest lobbying group in the House of Lords.

That is what inspired me to work on this; that is the background. It is a very human story. The Bill has what sounds a rather calm, dispassionate title. The issue before us is that, whenever we try to grapple with this, we are told by the Government that we simply do not know the nature and size of the problem. Last year, Public Health England gave the most comprehensive estimate to date of the number of annual gambling-related suicides: 409 in one year. That accounts for 8% of all suicides in 2020.

In the recent inquest into the tragic death of Jack Ritchie, the coroner’s conclusion was that warnings, information and treatment of problem gambling had been “woefully inadequate” and failed to meet Jack’s needs. The coroner said that he could not be blamed for his gambling problem. That brought home to many of us something that we already knew: that many of these online products have been designed to be addictive and are having a devastating impact on people. The suicide headline is just the tip of the problem, but it is the most dreadful part of it.

I have learned an awful lot from putting the Bill forward. I am grateful for the help I have had from other Members of the House, but particularly from the Minister, who very kindly met with me. He has been very honest about the problems he sees with it, and I understand that. If we had had time, I would have brought amendments to address some of those points. I intend to put another Private Member’s Bill in the ballot for the next round, which will be a much broader Bill that will pick up many of the concerns of coroners, some lawyers, and indeed the Government.

Fundamentally however, my motivations behind the Bill have not altered. Suicide is a terrible thing and the best way to tackle it is to identify the underlying causes and put in strategies to address them. So I am grateful for all those who have helped it get this far and I will be returning to this later on. However, with those final words I draw to a close.

I too have no wish to delay the House, but I will say a couple of words to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on the progress he has made with the Bill and on his expressed wish to take the matter further with a further Private Member’s Bill. My experience of Private Members’ Bills is certainly that it is an attritional process that he is engaged in, and I am glad to hear that he is working constructively with the Minister. As we heard in the earlier debate, the Minister is very keen on data and he will no doubt be focusing his question—if I can put it like that—on how the coroners’ service can address the concerns which the right reverend Prelate has quite rightly raised.

The right reverend Prelate told a very moving story when he introduced the debate today and gave some statistics on the reality of addictive online gambling products. I have to say that anyone who has had anything to do with young men will know that such products are absolutely ubiquitously used, and there are all sorts of ways of enticing people into gambling further. So I wish the right reverend Prelate—and the Minister—well with future Private Members’ Bills.

My Lords, I too have no wish to delay the House but, like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for highlighting this important issue and enabling us to have the time in the House today. I thank him for giving me his time earlier in the week. With all respect to other meetings which I had during the week, that was one which I found really interesting and from which I learned a lot.

I will say word about the legislation and, as the right reverend Prelate indicated, the Government’s approach. The legislation would require a coroner or inquest jury to record gambling addiction and any other relevant factors in a conclusion of death by suicide. Of course, the Government endorse the sentiment behind the Bill and recognise the importance of gathering quality information on the circumstances leading to self-harm and suicide, including the role that gambling can play. However, the Government do not agree that these proposals are the appropriate way to tackle the issue. As my noble friend Lady Scott set out at Second Reading, they would result in a significant expansion of the coroner’s jurisdiction to identify the perceived reason—the “why”—behind an individual’s suicide death, and we do not consider this to be appropriate for the fact-finding summary process of a coroner’s investigation, which is really focused on the hard factual questions of who, where, how and when. We also have a concern that information gathered in this way would likely be both incomplete and inconsistently obtained and therefore would not provide a sound basis for delivering the interventions needed to secure improved outcomes in this important area.

Coroners have a statutory duty to issue a prevention of future deaths report to any person or organisation where they believe that action could be taken to prevent future deaths. In most cases, the report and responses are published on the Chief Coroner’s website.

So far as the tragic case of Jack Ritchie, who the right reverend Prelate mentioned, is concerned, the Government have read and considered the senior coroner’s report and will respond formally to his concerns in the coming months. We are committed to learning lessons from those findings to prevent others taking their lives in similar circumstances.

As I am sure the right reverend Prelate knows, the University of Sheffield has been commissioned to estimate the number of people requiring treatment for harmful gambling at both national and local levels. This research is expected to conclude next year. In addition, the 2022 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey will include questions on gambling; again, this is designed to improve the evidence base.

Following last September’s first-ever review of the impact of gambling-related harms in England, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has committed to work with other government departments and stakeholders to improve data collection and to deliver effective responses. In March 2021, we published our fifth progress report on the national suicide prevention strategy, which included a refreshed suicide prevention work plan. We recognise the need to address gambling-related harms as a public health issue and are committed to expanding mental health services so that 2 million more people can access support by 2023-24.

Over and above that, the NHS long-term plan commits to expanding the geographical coverage of NHS services for people with serious gambling problems. The National Problem Gambling Clinic and four further clinics are already in operation, with 10 more expected by 2023-24, and £57 million is being rolled out to support local suicide prevention plans and to develop suicide bereavement services in every part of the country. More imminently, in the coming weeks we will publish a White Paper on the review of the Gambling Act 2005, which was launched last year.

As we have heard, this issue has been before the House previously, and I look forward to returning to it again when we debate the right reverend Prelate’s amendment to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill—another occasion on which this important topic will be aired. I heard the word “attritional” very carefully put in by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I also heard that the right reverend Prelate is going to try his luck in a form of gambling, which is, of course, entirely proper, which is the Private Members’ ballot, and we look forward to the result in due course.

In all seriousness, this is a topic which requires sustained engagement. The right reverend Prelate and I had a very good meeting earlier this week, and I look forward to further such meetings, and the conversation in that regard will continue. However, for the reasons I have set out, the Government are unable to support the Bill at this time.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at 2.03 pm.