Judicial Review and Courts Bill: Bishop of St Albans tables amendment

On 31st March 2022, the House of Lords debated the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. The Bishop of St Albans spoke on his amendment to the bill:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I rise to speak briefly to Amendment 28 standing in my name. I would be grateful if the House would indulge me just for a few minutes. As I explained last week when I was presenting my Private Member’s Bill, Public Health England pointed out that, in just one year, there were 409 suicides related to problem gambling. Your Lordships will be aware that the largest lobby group here in the House is Peers for Gambling Reform. Whenever we have tried to deal with this, one thing we keep hearing back is that we simply do not have the statistics or the data on the various causes of suicide. For some while, I have been trying in every way I can to get at least some data to help us with this so that we can devise strategies to reduce the terrible burden on families who have lost a young person.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is right that most of those who have taken their lives are young men, but it is now becoming clear that this is quite a significant problem also among younger women. It is partly because the ubiquitous gambling adverts are now spreading into women’s magazines and so on—it is just all over the place.

I shall be brief, because the Minister addressed some of the concerns in responding to my Private Member’s Bill, the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill, last Friday, but there are some important differences in this amendment, which is my attempt to respond to points that the Minister made. Unlike my Bill, the amendment would permit, but not require, coroners to record factors relevant in a death by suicide. Other differences between the amendment and the original Bill include provisions to ensure that the jury would no longer have any say in the consideration and recording of relevant factors and that the consideration and recording of factors by the coroner would now occur outside the inquest process and not disrupt the traditional remit of an inquest to determine how, what, when and where in relation to an unexplained death.

Finally, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance on which factors relevant in a death by suicide could be considered and the form in which they would be recorded by a coroner. Strict data protection provisions are included to prevent the identity of the deceased being disclosed or deduced in any way.

The purpose of this amendment is to allow factors relevant in a death by suicide to be recorded in a standardised and safe way, looking at the comorbidities, for the purpose of collecting data that will contribute to a much better understanding of the factors that are driving suicides here in the UK.

It is interesting that, despite the reluctance of the Government to give way on anything on this matter, some coroners, locally, are already recording this data. I have here the sheet that they use, with all the different factors written down. I received this from one of the coroners in my diocese. They are already able to do this. The point is that it is already permitted—or at least there is no provision stopping it—but because it is just done locally, and at the choice of the coroner, there is a lack of central oversight on how and what is being recorded, and a lack of a central database to securely record the factors that underly death by suicide.

This amendment would enshrine in law what is already technically permitted, while providing a sensible framework to securely record these factors in a co-ordinated and standardised manner across separate coronial jurisdictions, and to allow for this data to be centrally recorded and then published for research purposes without compromising the identity of any of the deceased. Personally, I think this is a sensible approach. It does not compel coroners to record these factors and it occurs outside of the inquest process, with no input for the jury.

I know that the Minister has concerns about mandating coroners and interfering with the inquest process. However, since the amendment does neither of those things, I hope that he will address the points I have just made to see whether this amendment really does create a simple framework for something that is already allowable.

What matters—I am sure that the Minister will agree—is that we find mechanisms to produce good-quality data on the factors driving suicides so that we can try to devise strategies to reduce the number of suicides. This amendment contributes to that goal. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD): My Lords, I want to say how much I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Albans in his campaign against gambling. He is energetic in that cause, and I very much respect him for it. He comes up against the nature of inquests, hallowed over many years, which are restricted to inquiring who, where and when. They do not even include the question that is emblazoned upon my family crest: ar bwy mae’r bai—“Who can we blame?”

When we leave this building, we should look at Westminster Abbey and realise that it was not built at the time that the procedures of inquests were begun. The coroner remains in charge of his inquest. He may discontinue, he may decide the inquest on the papers, or he may utilise audio or visual means to do so—all he has to do is notify interested parties that the coroner is satisfied; those are the statutory words. He does not have to give reasons. In particular, he does not have to have the consent of the family members—those who are bereaved and for whom an inquest is a most important matter in their lives. I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, which, very sensibly, require the consent of interested persons to the coroner making his decisions in the areas that I referred to, and require him to give reasons for those decisions. I leave it to others to expand.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con): I turn finally to Amendment 28, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. He is absolutely right: we debated this only a few days ago, as matters have turned out. I appreciate that this is, as we have heard, somewhat of an attritional campaign, and he has moved the focus of the amendment slightly to deal with some of the points I made last week, and for that I am very grateful. Of course, we recognise the importance of collating quality information on the circumstances which lead to suicide, including gambling-related factors, but we think that the amendment would not deliver that outcome.

As I think I said last Friday, current legislation focuses the coroner on the question of who the deceased was and when, where and how they died, not why they died. That often strays into determining liability, which Section 5(3) of the 2009 Act expressly forbids. I appreciate that, as the right reverend Prelate informed us, some coroners have started to collate that information, but that is really one of the problems. We are very concerned that information collated in a somewhat haphazard manner would not be a sufficiently robust basis on which to base government policy. Furthermore, even if all coroners were asked to do it, we must recognise that coroners get information from a range of sources: family, partners, friends, police, et cetera. All those sources might give the coroner differing motivating factors which could have led to the suicide.

I repeat what I said on Friday: we will be publishing a White Paper in the coming weeks on the Gambling Act review, following the debate on the tragic death of Jack Ritchie, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned last week. We are committed to understanding the circumstances which lead to self-harm and suicide, including gambling addiction. We have commissioned the University of Sheffield to do some work in this area, and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has likewise committed to work with government departments and other stakeholders to improve data in this area.

I gave some more information last Friday about what the Government are doing in this area. I will not detain the House by repeating it, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are treating the issue with importance. However, we do not, respectfully, think that this amendment is the right way to deal with it. I therefore urge him not to press his amendments. I was going to say that I am very happy to continue the conversation, but I anticipate that this conversation will be continuing, whether I am happy to or not. In any event, I look forward to continuing it with the right reverend Prelate.

Amendment 28 not moved.

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