Bishop of St Albans takes part in debate on deaths caused by social media

The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on the role of social media in children’s deaths on 20th January 2023, drawing attention to the broadness of social factors contributing to children’s deaths:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this most important debate on the contributory role of social media to the deaths of children, and I pay tribute to her persistent campaigning on this subject. It is a timely debate given that only a month ago we received the legislative scrutiny committee’s report on the draft online harms Bill.

I want to focus on the whole question of the extent to which we understand the numbers and the causes of child deaths, not only where social media plays a significant role but in a whole range of other issues. This is a much broader problem than just this topic, although it is a superb example of why we need better research and better recording of data.

In December, your Lordships’ House debated the Second Reading of my Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill. It would require coroners to record any relevant contributory factors once a death by suicide has been officially determined. It would not be a finding in law, the results would be anonymised and published anonymously, and it would be akin to the well-established processes that hospitals have for recording comorbidities of death.

All sorts of groups are campaigning and looking for much better data. Your Lordships will know that the reason why I have brought forward the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill is because we have been trying to get accurate stats on gambling-related suicides—many of them are of younger adults—which, according to the recent evidence from Public Health England, accounts for roughly 8% of all suicides. That is a really significant number of suicides. Regardless of the criticisms of my Bill on feasibility, there is an important principle here about how we record comorbidities and use that evidence. Again and again when campaigning against massively powerful industries, one argument is that we do not really have the statistics. I have to say that Her Majesty’s Government officially come back with the same argument again and again, so for the last five years, my question has been, “Please will you help us to start getting accurate stats?” That is why I turned up with the idea of a coroners Bill. It is absolutely crucial to get the accurate stats because, if we do not, we will never be able to devise strategies to reduce the number of suicides. You do not reduce suicides in general by saying nice and comforting things about it to people; you find out what the causes are and get a strategy to address each one. Particularly when we have something that causes 8% of deaths, we really need to collect that sort of evidence.

Of course the Government are legislating to prevent child exposure to some of the content that Molly Russell and others saw, but it is absolutely crucial that we get ways of trying to understand properly what is going on. The Government say that my Bill will not be an appropriate mechanism to collect the evidence. What it has led us to is discussions with a number of coroners about postvention studies, which may be how we can get hold of that data. However it is, we need it. Will the Minister tell the Committee specifically what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to try to get this data, rather than keeping saying, “Oh dear, we haven’t got it”? It is vital that it is collected, if we are to have an evidence-based approach to preventing suicides in relation to all associated risk factors.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con): It is worth noting that coroners already have statutory powers to require evidence to be given or documents to be produced for the purpose of their inquests—this would include relevant digital data following the death of a child—with sanctions where such evidence is not given or documents produced. They are well aware of these powers.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned his Private Member’s Bill. As he knows, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is clear that it is beyond a coroner’s powers to determine why somebody died. Coroners’ investigations are about determining who died, how, when and where, but not why. However, he is right that more can be done to understand some of those circumstances. We recognise that quality information on the circumstances leading to self-harm and suicide can support better interventions to prevent them in the first place. The Department for Health and Social Care is considering including questions on gambling as part of the adult psychiatric morbidity survey this year to help establish the prevalence of suicidal tendencies linked to gambling and to improve its evidence base. As the right reverend Prelate knows, we are taking a close look at the Gambling Commission’s powers as part of our review of the Gambling Act.

The Government are deeply concerned about the impact of harmful content and activity online on children. We are committed to introducing legislation as soon as possible to ensure that platforms are held to account for this content so that future generations can have a healthy relationship with the internet. I look forward to debating that Bill when it comes to this House. In the meantime, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate.

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