That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of Peers for Gambling Reform.
I am glad to bring before the House the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill, now in its third iteration. This latest version is significantly different from the previous two; it has taken on board many of His Majesty’s Government’s criticisms and attempted to resolve them. Indeed, the Minister who dealt with the Bill in the previous Session, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, had hoped to speak today from the Back Benches but has to be in court. He has, however, given his permission to say that he supports the aims of the Bill. Because we have tried to respond to the points made by the Government, I will listen attentively to the Minister as he outlines their response, given that I believe their concerns have largely been dealt with.
The genesis of the Bill is the frustration that many of us in your Lordships’ House have felt when we have tried to bring in sensible reforms to the Wild West of online gambling, which is causing untold suffering in communities across our nation. More than a third of a million adults in our country are now diagnosed with a gambling addiction. More than 62,000 teenagers, who in law are not even allowed to gamble, have been diagnosed with a gambling problem. With an estimated more than 400,000 suicides every year due to problem gambling, we need to address this problem in a sensible way. On a number of occasions when I and other noble Lords have raised the issue in the House, the Government have resisted our attempts to bring some order to this sector, simply claiming, “We don’t understand the size of the problem.” The Bill is a proposal for one way of obtaining more data.
Although the first two versions of the Bill included explicit references to gambling, those have now been removed and replaced with a means to record a wide range of causative factors in suicides. Previously there were concerns that the recording of such factors would interfere with the traditional remit of the coroner and the inquest process. Noble Lords will be aware that for centuries coroners have been given the task of answering the questions “Who?”, “What?”, “When?” and “How?” but not “Why?”. That is a criticism that I have taken seriously. I have endeavoured to ensure that the recording of causative factors explicitly occurs following the conclusion of an inquest and will therefore have no impact on the official death certificate or, indeed, the inquest process.
I point out in passing that many coroners, either informally or through the use of a prevention of future deaths report, already comment on the causes of many suicides. For example, Mr Andrew Walker, a senior coroner from north London, has spoken publicly on many occasions recently following the death of Molly Russell, who took her life by suicide. I quote from his statement:
“Molly subscribed to a number of online sites … some of these sites were not safe as they allowed access to adult content that should not have been available for a 14-year-old child to see … Molly had access to images, video clips and text concerning … self-harm, suicide or that were otherwise negative or depressing”.
Even on the train this morning I read another comment by a coroner talking about the question of “Why?” This is something which is happening, and coroners seem to be doing it fairly regularly.
The Bill requires the Secretary of State to draw up guidance on what factors the coroner must consider and the form in which these factors should be recorded. Furthermore, citing fears from coroners that the Bill would oblige them to record a factor or factors in instances where they feel insufficiently able to make that determination, provisions are included to require an option of “no discernible factor” to be included in the guidance.
Obviously, I would expect and hope that gambling-related harm is included as a factor in the Secretary of State’s guidance. Still, the purpose of having the guidance and collection method drawn up by the Secretary of State is to enable a system of generalised data collection which could be streamlined across different coronial jurisdictions. This is crucial, as under Clause 1(6) of the Bill the Office for National Statistics will be required to collect the opinions recorded on the factors causative to suicides in the UK in order to publish them on an annual basis. This information will prove crucial in informing the Government’s suicide prevention programme, alongside the research and work performed by charities and other organisations.
Additionally, new provisions are outlined in Clause 1(7) which prevent information relating to risk factors being released in any way that could lead to the identification of the deceased. Clause 1(8) prevents risk factors collected being used as evidence in any court proceedings. These provisions, though unusual, stem from concerns that the Government had about whether the recording of risk could later be used to attribute civil liability to either individuals or businesses. By preventing the disclosures of identities or the use of risk factors as evidence, this concern would be clearly mitigated.
On the technical aspects of the Bill, these updated provisions create a strong framework to enable the recording of factors causative in a death by suicide without interfering with the coronial process, placing undue responsibilities on the coroner or creating judicial difficulties. I hope that this updated version of the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill will commend itself to His Majesty’s Government and that they too will recognise the importance of collecting information on the risk factors that cause suicide in the UK.
Suicide prevention cannot simply be about interventions to prevent suicide, though I do not discount the importance of this. People rarely commit suicide without reason. In fact, there is nearly always a reason, known in coronial circles as the “causative factor”. It is only by addressing these causative factors that we can have an effective suicide prevention strategy. This necessarily requires accurate knowledge of the main, leading factors driving suicides in the UK today.
A number of Members of your Lordships’ House who are part of Peers for Gambling Reform have argued that one cannot reduce the estimated 409 annual gambling-related suicides—that estimate is by Public Health England—without a comprehensive package of better treatment for those suffering and better regulations to curb the excessive harms caused by online gambling.
In 2020 there were 5,224 suicides in the UK. Aside from age, gender, location and method, we know virtually nothing about the causes, which limits our capability to devise strategies to reduce the number of suicides—something which His Majesty’s Government have committed to doing. This Bill, in a modest way, would enable the accurate recording of risk factors across various coronal jurisdictions in a safe and secure manner, without compromising the identity of the individual or the inquest process.
I recognise that the ability of the coroner to not record anything might limit the accuracy of the data but I am hesitant to place an unfair burden on coroners, and recognise the importance of taking this forward with their support rather than against their will. Nevertheless, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and I believe the framework presented in this Bill will provide a good framework for the collection of this information. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate for bringing his Private Member’s Bill for the third time before Parliament. If he believed in luck, I would say “third time lucky”. I am pleased to see that the Bill has been widened beyond gambling being recorded as a relevant causative factor in a death by suicide.
I wish to briefly address one of the reasons given previously by His Majesty’s Government as to why this sensible piece of legislation is not possible and one of the implications for our cultural understanding of suicide. His Majesty’s Government have said that if we introduce a statement of relevant causative factors for deaths by suicide then we would have to introduce it for all the causes a coroner might state for a death—namely, misadventure, unlawful killing, accident et cetera. However, suicide as a cause of death stands alone and needs to be treated separately, as it is the only cause of death that will be affected potentially by any introduction of assisted dying or assisted suicide legislation. No one would suggest that we would have assisted dying by way of misadventure or accident; sadly, I think we might end up with unlawful killing. Why would the Government not want to assist parliamentarians to have this evidence when next considering such legislation, which, I might add, I strongly oppose?
The right reverend Prelate outlined the comments from the coroner in the inquest into the tragic suicide of Molly Russell. I have high hopes for the Online Safety Bill and the duty of care it will create to ensure that, when on the internet, children and vulnerable adults do not have access to the type of material Molly viewed. However, any provision, if legalised, on assisted dying or assisted suicide would of course be on the internet, so legislation is also going to have to create a miraculous Chinese wall to ensure lawful assisted suicide information is kept away from other footage, such as that which Molly viewed.
We know from the work done, particularly by the right reverend Prelate, that we would need to potentially block from gambling sites, or prescribe limits on, links to any lawful assisted suicide website. I hope this brief description of this information on the internet outlines the difficulties we would have in this task. I think it might be impossible, but without the causes and factors behind suicides, as outlined in this Bill, it is definitely impossible.
Further, this data would enable more detailed analysis of the role of mental health in deaths by suicide. I am currently serving on the pre-legislative scrutiny committee of the draft mental health Bill. The current Mental Health Act sits on the hard-won moral tectonic plate that suicide is not criminal but to be prevented and not encouraged or aided. Under the Mental Health Act, even when you have capacity—a factor I think many people do not realise—the state can detain you when you are ill and can forcibly treat you to avoid you committing suicide. Recently, a healthy 23 year-old woman in Belgium chose to be euthanised although she was physically fit and well but was mentally unwell after being in the vicinity, although uninjured physically, of a terrorist incident. The data on causes of suicide that this Bill asks for will enable parliamentarians to consider, when looking at assisted suicide, whether it should be given on the basis of psychiatric illness alone. It is a controversial proposal.
The Government have always maintained that assisted dying or assisted suicide is a conscience issue for parliamentarians, but I would argue that not collecting this data is perilously close to the Government leaning in favour of such legislation. A recent peer-reviewed article by Dr Jones, in volume 11 of the Journal of Ethics in Mental Health, found that some assisted dying legislatures have seen increased non-assisted dying suicide rates. It is therefore essential for legislators to have such data to assess the risk of increasing the rates of suicide in England and Wales through the introduction of any such legislation.
It is a hard-won principle that the state should protect its citizens from harm, whether from foreign states, third-party actors, other citizens or themselves. I fear that we might tamper with this moral tectonic plate without the necessary data. So I hope that His Majesty’s Government will give the Bill the time in the other place that it needs to become law.
I also welcome the Bill and wish it well. The reform of the coronial system in 2009 has transformed the way in which it operates. Much of this has been due to the leadership of the successive Chief Coroners, who have substantially improved the way the families of the deceased are treated and inquests conducted—they have improved the whole system. One of the important developments has been the creation and implementation under the Act of the prevention of future deaths reports.
I warmly congratulate the Chief Coroner on what he has done. I stress, for my third point, that the guidance the Chief Coroner has issued and the use of those reports—it is important to read them—show what can come out of the coronial system. This takes me to my first observation: is this requirement extending the jurisdiction and scope of an inquest? I do not think so; we are building on experience, in the way that the great system of our common law has always done. It is a modest step.
We could have a long debate about causation this morning. If you read some of the reports based on cases where suicide has occurred, there are recommendations in respect of ligature points: looking after people who are sent without proper advice on the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs, or where there has been a lack of surveillance or co-ordination in supervision. All of these essentially extend to looking, in what comes out of the inquest, at the underlying causes of what has happened. I do not believe that one should read Section 5—
“how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death”—
as circumscribing what is proposed in this excellent Bill.
The two reports go beyond the points about ligature and the lack of surveillance; they look at the reports on the death of Jack Ritchie and, more recently—on 13 October this year—of Molly Rose, showing how valuable these reports have been. I reserve this for a future occasion, if it is challenged that this goes beyond the wording of Section 5. Looking forward to the philosophical debate about what is meant by causation, which I will not address at this hour of the morning and could not possibly do within the five minutes allocated, I challenge anyone who suggests that this is not permissible under the wording of the Act.
Secondly, it is said that there may be difficulty in respect of uniformity. My experience of dealing with statisticians and those who look at this area means that I do not believe that this is a practical barrier. This is a matter that the Chief Coroner and the statisticians can look at.
Thirdly—this is my only criticism of the Bill—I do not believe it right that the guidance should be issued by the Secretary of State. It would be much better if it were issued by the Chief Coroner, for two reasons. First, you can see that he is experienced in doing this. The guidance in respect of the prevention of future deaths report has been successively revised and kept up to date, and you can see the care and attention that he has brought to it, with his knowledge. Obviously, this would not be done by the Minister himself, but it is much better for it to be done by someone with the detailed knowledge the Chief Coroner has, rather than a civil servant. Secondly, as coroners are judges and judicial officers, I have the gravest reservations about the Executive giving them guidance about how they are to exercise their functions. That is contrary to the principles of our constitution.
My Lords, I support the Bill, mindful of the rise in the number of suicides and attempted suicides in our country in recent years. As a nation, we are adept at collecting statistics but less good at reflecting on them. As TS Eliot lamented, where is the wisdom we have lost in information? When it comes to addressing the underlying causes and triggers of suicide, not having accurate information compounds the problem. The Bill seeks to address a lacuna in our processes.
The available evidence shows that the Covid pandemic sheltered a second pandemic of poor mental health. A friend once described his depression as “malignant sadness”. Young people are some of the most vulnerable in our society, and, as we all know, various factors, including gambling debts, can push a depressed person over the edge. In addition to the 409 gambling-related suicides estimated by Public Health England, studies have demonstrated that people who suffer from gambling disorders are 15 times more likely to take their own lives.
If the Government’s suicide prevention strategy is to be effective, it is vital that we have as accurate a picture as possible. We have to move from anecdote to evidence, and our coroners are well placed to help us. The Bill provides a simple and effective way of collecting evidence of gambling-related harm. It is not about the apportionment of blame, which is not the role of the coroner, and it does not attempt to restrict or limit the practice of gambling. Rather, it simply attempts to identify the causative factors of suicide. I have no doubt that widening the Bill to record the causative factors of suicide—not just those that are gambling-related—will provide a great deal of useful information for the Government and groups concerned with public health. I am confident that, in its stages in this House, there will be a full and proper opportunity for the questions and concerns of the Government and others to be addressed.
Having talked with some coroners, I am conscious of the pressure that the coronial service operates under—to my mind, it is overstretched and underresourced. That said, the role of the coroner continues to evolve, as we see with increasing use of narrative conclusions, for example. We have to find a way of registering causative factors in a suicide. Registering comorbidities and anonymously collating this body of evidence would enable the Government’s suicide prevention strategy to be more effective. I invite noble Lords to join me in supporting the Bill.
My Lords, I also support the Bill. A flutter on the Derby or even the habit of doing one’s weekly football pools are one thing, but the domination of one’s whole life by a gambling addiction is quite another. It is a cancer in our society. Moreover, as poverty tightens, as it is already starting to, I fear that this addiction will grow. By the same token that desperate refugees risk their all in perilous cross-channel voyages, so, too, desperate people are readier to stake their all in the hope of sudden enrichment.
In principle, I supported the right reverend Prelate’s earlier version of this Bill last November, although I did not then explicitly accept its express terms. However, since then, it has been very substantially rejigged and improved to take on board a number of the understandable concerns that were expressed in November by the departmental Minister. In its present iteration, I believe that it would now work in practice and fully support it.
In truth, once one enlarges the scope of a coroner’s investigation—as this Bill proposes, to a degree—to consider not merely the how, when and where the deceased died but also, to some degree, why they died, one embarks inevitably upon a less certain field of inquiry which risks some measure of inconsistent outcome. But, and this is the all-important “but”, as the right reverend Prelate already said in his compelling opening—in doing so he shot one of my foxes; indeed, he shot most of them—let not the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is far more to gain than to lose in this proposal. The Bill would give us an altogether better statistical appreciation of the dreadful effects of gambling addiction upon our society, and a genuine improvement in the measurement of the number of those most extremely and tragically affected: those whose problem spirals and escalates to the point where they kill themselves in desperation.
As I mentioned the last time around, one consistent and cardinal principle has emerged in our coronial law down the years. Today, I will confine myself to a single quotation from the 2020 Supreme Court judgment given by Lady Arden in the case of Maughan, deciding that the civil, not criminal, standard of proof should apply to an inquest to bring in a verdict of suicide. Lady Arden said:
“The criminal standard may lead to suicides being under-recorded and to lessons not being learnt … The reasons for suicide are often complex. … There is a considerable public interest in accurate suicide statistics as they may reveal a need for social and medical care in areas not previously regarded as significant. Each suicide determination can help others by revealing how suicide risks may be managed in future.”
As I suggested in the November debate, this Bill is wholly consistent with that principle and approach: it is important to record as many of the relevant facts as would ensure, in the public interest, that this terrible social evil—the problem of gambling—does not go under-recorded. I hope that this Bill will be given a Second Reading and then sent successfully on its way to fruition.
My Lords, I too support this Bill. Because I agree with everything that has been said so far, I shall try to avoid wasting your Lordships’ time by repeating points that have already been made. I declare my interests as a member of Peers for Gambling Reform and as having sat on the Select Committee that looked into the current, and unquestionably unsatisfactory, state of gambling legislation in this country a couple of years ago.
I will make one or two observations about the rather slow developments in relation to the reform of gambling legislation, a matter with which the right reverend Prelate is very familiar. The current position is that we have been waiting quite a long time for the White Paper on reform of the legislation; time will tell as to what that document will say. A document emerged recently that may foreshadow the White Paper: the Government’s response to a consultation on the arcane subject of loot boxes, which are arguably an undesirably phenomenon related to gaming online. I will take forward one point from a recent debate on that subject.
The Government’s response correctly recognised the compelling evidence of a strong correlation between what might be called the excessive expenditure of money on purchasing loot boxes, on the one hand, and problem gambling on the other. Some might think that a reason for considering taking some kind of action in relation to loot boxes, which are available to children and young people. However, the Government, in their response, declined to take action and preferred to leave the matter to self-regulation, as it is called, principally on the basis that correlation is not causation and that a causal connection between what might be called addiction to loot boxes and problem gambling has not been made out. It is not difficult to foresee a similar type of analysis informing the Government’s position in the White Paper, when it eventually emerges. The Government of course are quite entitled to say that evidence is important and that decisive action should be taken only on the basis of evidence.
The Bill before the House is, I suggest, clearly desirable. Coroners use their skills to investigate the often very distressing circumstances relating to sudden death. In the course of those investigations and the inquest process, they acquire a lot of information about the causation of the death. That information is clearly a very valuable resource that ought to inform the development of policy in the near future, in relation to gambling legislation and a number of other possible causes of suicide. Why would we wish to deprive ourselves of that resource? I can see no conceivable, sensible reason for doing so. Accordingly, while the Bill might need some careful attention in Committee, it clearly deserves the support of this House and I hope that it moves forward.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on his tenacity in bringing forward his Bill for a third time, and for his excellent introduction to this morning’s debate. I declare my interest as a vice-chair of Peers for Gambling Reform.
We all seem to be in agreement: deaths because of suicide are devastating for families and friends since, as with all sudden deaths, there is no opportunity to say goodbye, and for those left behind there can be a lingering feeling that they should have noticed and done more to prevent it happening. However, those suffering from addictions, especially gambling, are often extremely good at hiding just how deeply they have become embroiled and the level of their debt as a result. Where it is possible to assess what drove an individual to take their own life, the coroner should record this. Only by knowing just what the scale of the problem is with regards to gambling will we be able to assess the signs of addiction and intervene to prevent the tragic loss of life. Most people can set themselves limits, gamble safely and enjoy the process, but for others it is a downward spiral into addiction, engulfing them in a sense of hopelessness and lack of control. They think they have conquered their addiction, until emails in their inbox invite them to have five free bonuses.
I raise two well-known case studies where gambling was a contributing factor in a death by suicide. The first is the high-profile case of a young electrical engineer, aged 25, on an annual salary of £60,000 who, in 2017, took his own life after losing £119,000 over five days, having been enticed with VIP designation and given multiple free cash bonuses. The second is a father of two children, a primary school teacher aged 40 who, having previously self-excluded from gambling for two years, began gambling again while on furlough after receiving free bonuses before eventually driving 100 miles to take his own life.
In 2020, ONS data showed that there were 5,224 registered deaths by suicide in England and Wales; 3,925 were males and 1,299 were females. The highest rate of suicide in all age groups was among those aged 45 to 49 years. Young people are also particularly prone to anxiety and depression, which can result in suicide. In Public Health England’s gambling-related harms evidence review, it estimated—as we have already heard; I am sorry about that—that there were 409 suicides annually associated with gambling, while the campaign Gambling with Lives argues that research indicates that the number is between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides each year.
The national suicide prevention strategy was set up in 2012 to support bereaved families affected by suicide, alongside attempting to reduce the suicide rate. The Government have produced progress reports for preventing suicide in England, with the latest in March 2021, when £5 million was made available to support voluntary and community organisations. The Government say that they are working to embed real-time suicide surveillance to collect data on suspected suicides across all areas. Ensuring that coroners record data on suspected gambling-related incidents is key to identifying and monitoring patterns of risk and causal factors.
Under the current law, the coroner is not required to record any opinion on any factors relevant to the death where they have determined that death by suicide has occurred. Nevertheless, as we have heard, many coroners do record these factors. Many noble Lords have commented on the very tragic case of 14 year-old Molly Russell in 2017. Molly was accessing online sites promoting self-harm and disturbing images, which eventually led to her suicide. The coroner’s report stated that Molly
“died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.
The right reverend Prelate referred to this. If a coroner can record the pressure that online harms caused in a case such as that of Molly Russell, surely they can record when the pressure comes from gambling, much of which is online.
Many noble Lords have made excellent and more knowledgeable contributions than mine. I agree that this Bill should proceed, and I look forward to the Minister’s positive response to this short debate.
My Lords, every suicide is one tragic death too many and it is incumbent on us to seek to address the factors that lead people to take their own lives. It is not just a tragedy for the person who has reached the end of the line; it deeply affects their loved ones and communities. I know from the very many debates that we have had in this House how many noble Lords are committed to dealing with and exposing the realities of the factors that drive people to suicide.
I congratulate the right reverend Prelate not just on bringing forward this Bill—again—today and his work on it but for his continued work to challenge harms, particularly gambling harms. We support the general aims and intentions of the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby has previously said, one issue it raises is whether the coronial system is the best way to get data to help inform the fight against suicide. Of course, the primary purpose of coroners’ courts is to determine how someone died, rather than why they died. The reasons for suicide are, as we have heard today, often complex, and it is so important that quality information is gathered on the circumstances leading to suicide. While gathering data is indeed helpful, it may not be beneficial to categorise reasons for suicide if they do not reflect the complex background to the event—it must be accurate.
The Bill specifies that the Secretary of State must issue guidance on the factors which the coroner must consider in reaching an opinion. It also states that the Secretary of State must include the option for the coroner to record “no discernible factor”, or equivalent, as the cause of suicide. The coroner therefore would not be obliged to attempt to record the cause—or causes—of suicide if this cannot be discerned. The Bill also provides that the ONS must publish opinions recorded by the coroner on an annual basis. That challenge that we all seek to resolve on the reliability of data where the reasons for suicide are often complex and may not be conclusive is whether this means of collection will provide the reliability that we absolutely need.
Perhaps I can use the opportunity to raise a few points with the Minister. In April 2022, the Government published a discussion paper and issued a call for evidence to help the development of a new cross-government 10-year plan for mental health and well-being in England. As part of this, they sought feedback on suicide prevention and committed to developing a separate suicide prevention plan. The consultation has now closed. Can the Minister advise your Lordships’ House when the new government plan for mental health and well-being will be published?
In July this year, Gillian Keegan, then Minister for Care and Mental Health, said that the Government would consider the evidence base for the causes of suicide as part of the development of the new suicide prevention plan. Can the Minister update the House on this as well? Public Health England previously piloted real-time suicide monitoring systems in areas that had existing surveillance systems in place. Can the Minister advise on what progress, if any, has been made to create a national real-time suicide surveillance system?
In closing, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part not just in this debate but in the debates that have come before and doubtless will come again on how we help to support people—adults and children—not to succumb and find that their only way out is suicide. I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate for leading this debate today and introducing this Bill.
My Lords, may I also congratulate and thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for again providing the opportunity to debate this important and sensitive issue and for his strenuous and tenacious efforts to improve the Bill to meet the points made in previous debates? In fact, the Bill is now wider than it was before in that it extends to all suicides, instead of just those related to gambling. This is an extremely important area and the Government very much share the thoughts expressed this morning on the importance of gathering quality information on the circumstances that can lead to a suicide.
There were a number of extremely moving contributions this morning. I make particular mention of the need for better data on assisted suicides, the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. I also mention her points about gambling addiction, and those made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. However, despite these efforts, the Government are not yet in a position to support the Bill, essentially for three reasons which I will briefly set out. The central question is the one raised just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, which is whether the coronal system is the right way forward for this exercise. The Government do not support the Bill for three reasons.
First, the Bill is not an appropriate extension of the coroner’s jurisdiction. The coroner is there to decide when, where and how somebody died: whether it is accidental death, suicide, natural causes, unlawful killing, open verdict or whatever. To go further and ask why somebody died is to move from the objective to the difficult, subjective, extremely complex, often speculative and very often deeply mysterious question of why somebody chose to take their own life. That would be a major and obligatory extension of the scope of the investigation. It is not a complete answer to say that it would be separate from the verdict and after the verdict, because they still have to do the investigation.
We cannot rely on the information available to different coroners’ courts or different inquests being complete; we cannot rely on it being consistent; and it is likely to be fraught with emotion and subjective feelings. To investigate these things may well cause extra distress to the families involved and to the privacy of the family, and may in that sense be counterproductive. It would certainly require considerable extra resources and extra time for a system that is already resource-stretched. It is difficult enough, especially post pandemic, for the coronal system to do its existing job, let alone have this extremely extensive and potentially very difficult new burden imposed on it. In the Government’s view there are significant downsides to the Bill, however laudable the objective. We entirely agree that the objective is laudable, and the right reverend Prelate is to be congratulated on putting the Bill forward, but the question is whether it is the right way forward. The main argument being relied on, it seems to us, is that it is essential to have better data about suicides.
The second reason for the Government’s position is that our view is that this, as a system, is most unlikely to be able to produce statistical information that is significantly complete, comprehensive or consistent across jurisdictions to be useful for the purposes of setting policy or for the purposes of the ONS to publish reliable, objective information where we are necessarily dealing with subjective, sometimes speculative and sometimes completely unknown reasons as to why somebody killed themself. However laudable it is, we do not accept that the coronal system is the best way forward for collecting more data on the reasons for suicide.
The third reason, which has been mentioned indirectly several times this morning, is that we already have, in effect, a system for publicising and drawing attention to difficult cases, through the establishment of the system for prevention of future death reports: it is already there, essentially. Particular mention has been made of the PFD report into the sad death of Molly Russell, who died from an act of self-harm due to the negative effect of online content. Mention has also been made of the tragic death of Jack Ritchie, a young man who took his life following problems with gambling. In those cases, through the existing system, the coroner could draw attention to the circumstances. We already have a working system, so is it really justified to impose the further obligation, in all cases, to go in sufficient detail into the question of why? The Government’s position is that the prevention of future death report system is working well, that it produces the information, and that it would be disproportionate and potentially counterproductive to take the Bill further.
More generally, the Government are committed to expanding and transforming mental health services in England. As the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, mentioned, we have already had a call for evidence on the longer-term priorities for mental health, well-being and suicide prevention. That call for evidence closed on 7 July. I was asked when we are planning to publish our plan, and she raised two other points in reference to the comments of Minister Keegan and what progress we have made in real-time suicide monitoring in various contexts. I am not able to give detailed information this morning, but I will write as soon as I can, because this is an important question that the Government take extremely seriously.
For those three principal reasons—the extreme difficulty of investigating the why in every case under the compulsory requirements in the Bill; the difficulty, even if we did investigate it, of knowing whether the information is reliable for statistical purposes; and the existing prevention of future death reports, which fill that gap—the Government oppose the Bill. Finally, I support the comment made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, to the effect that it would be constitutionally inappropriate for the Secretary of State to give directions to independent judicial officers such as coroners. That point, in my respectful submission, is entirely right and is a further but subsidiary reason for opposing the Bill.
I thank noble Lords for their speeches. I will not go into them in detail, because we hope to come back to this at a later stage, when we can explore them further. I shall just respond to the Minister though, because it seems to me that there is a potential inconsistency in the reasons he has given.
For example, the Minister said that it is very difficult for the coroner to determine “why”. Yet, he conceded in his third point that they are already able to issue the precise reasons why under the prevention of future deaths report, which could not be made unless some sort of view was taken on what had caused the deaths. I totally take the point a number of noble Lords have made, that this is a very inexact way forward; it is certainly not perfect. The Bill has got to its third iteration because at every stage, when people have told me, “I wouldn’t do it like that”, I have asked them how they would do it. I can see all the problems, but I hope that with the help of noble Lords, not least those noble and learned Lords who have brought their considerable legal expertise—I am delighted to have such eminent judges, people who really understand the law, commenting on this—we can improve it.
Our system of taking Bills through Parliament is one of improving them together. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas: let us look at the issue. Is it the Secretary of State or is it the Chief Coroner? Perhaps he could bring us an amendment on that. Let us sort out these problems. These are areas where I have no experience at all; I am just a jobbing Bishop from the sticks. We have these legal experts here who can help us, so I thank them very much and hope they will enable us to improve the Bill as we bring it back.
I want to go back to the basic facts. There are more than 400 suicides a year. We heard stories in the Select Committee of families who have been rent apart and will never be the same. Take the story of Jack Ritchie. His parents have been in this place several times and are now campaigners. Their whole lives have been destroyed, as they watched their son get destroyed. They could see that it was going to happen but felt powerless to do anything. We have to do something. The Bill may not be perfect but, please, let us see what we can do to improve it so that we can get the data to allow us to inform His Majesty’s Government’s suicide prevention strategy—not just on problem gambling but on other forms of addiction and other areas. This could be a significant way forward if your Lordships could help me forge it into something better. I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.