On 25th March 2022, the House of Lords debated the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill (2021) in its third reading. The Bishop of St Albans, who had brought the bill as a private members bill, moved that the bill should pass.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: That the Bill do now pass.
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.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Labour): 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.
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State – Ministry of Justice): 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.
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.