Suicide Promotion (Internet)

– in the House of Commons at 7:29 pm on 25th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:30 pm, 25th January 2005

It is an indication of the fast-changing world in the 21st century that I rise to debate a subject that 10 years ago would not have been an issue, because the internet was in its infancy. We live in a digital age—an information age—that has revolutionised communications to the huge benefit of mankind. However, all new technological developments, such as nuclear power, genetic engineering and computer technology generally, can be put to bad and evil uses as well as to good ones.

The internet, chat rooms and e-mail enable people who are thousands of miles apart to communicate with each other at a cost that most people can afford and with a high degree of anonymity. That means that we now live in a society in which our neighbour in the apartment next door may be less well known than someone we converse with in a chat room thousands of miles away. That has dangers as well as advantages.

In addition, cyberspace has become a powerful medium in which to sell products and services. It does not respect national boundaries or national legislation and, by its very nature, it can conceal the physical location of the source of internet information and, of course, the author of such information. To legislate to regulate and control such an environment is a major challenge if we are to prevent the internet from being misused to damage people's lives and livelihoods.

The use of the internet to promote suicide is a growing problem. I use the word "promote" advisedly, because certain websites, written publications, organisations and individuals are encouraging people to commit suicide, for whatever reason. The tragic death of 19-year-old Sarah Cherry in Lancashire late last year is the case that first brought my attention to this tragic phenomenon. Early-day motion 170, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Borrow, highlighted the case of Sarah who, after discussing suicide in an internet chat room, purchased a book from Amazon.com on how to commit suicide and subsequently killed herself. My hon. Friend, in his early-day motion, called for legal action to be taken against those who write, publish or sell material or distribute information on the internet about how to commit suicide. I echo that call.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Our regional newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Post, and its campaign "Stop the peddlers of death" have highlighted this and other tragic cases of suicide. Does my hon. Friend agree that libraries that stock manuals to encourage suicide should remove them from their shelves immediately?

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to come to the point he makes about libraries. In fact, Lancashire county libraries have taken the book "Final Exit" from their shelves. It is the same book that Sarah Cherry acquired from Amazon.com. Although it has been withdrawn from the shelves, Amazon.com has refused calls not to sell it and persists in selling it over the internet.

Although that case brought the matter to my attention, the problem is more widespread than most people imagine—so much so that, as my hon. Friend said, the Lancashire Evening Post has taken it up. The newspaper has raised the matter with local MPs, including myself, Mr. Jack, whom I am happy to see in the Chamber, and my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and for South Ribble.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the publicity that the Lancashire Evening Post afforded the campaign addresses another crucial dimension of the matter—making parents aware of what their sons and daughters might be up to when using the internet? The internet offers a private method of communication, but if people have it in their nature that suicide is a possibility, does he agree that the more parents who know about the problem through campaigns such as that in the newspaper, the better?

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Parents should be made aware of the situation and, as I shall say later, it is important for the Government to do more to make people aware. Internet service providers should consider providing filters to help to tackle the problem, as they do for illegal pornography.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The north-west is not the only region that faces the problem. There was a tragic incident in my constituency, as a result of which an organisation called PAPYRUS—I think that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of it—has tried to bring together parents who have suffered such tragedies after young people have been affected by information from the internet. I know that there is national concern about the situation, which supports his initiative tonight.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I shall cite the organisation to which he referred during my speech.

I have researched the matter and it is abundantly clear that the Suicide Act 1961 is woefully inadequate to deal with the use of the internet for the promotion of suicide. I say that for the reasons that I have outlined: cyberspace does not respect national boundaries or legislation, and both the physical location and author of a source of information can be concealed.

Photo of Tony Cunningham Tony Cunningham PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that 78 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 170, which indicates the tremendous strength of feeling about the matter in the House. When he talks about cyberspace having no limits, does he agree that there are no limits on age? Young people at a vulnerable age—as young as 11, 12 or 13—could access the information. It is especially depraved to target such young people.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I agree with my hon. Friend. Neither age nor geographical location is a barrier to accessing the information. The phenomenon can affect people of all backgrounds, nationalities and ages. It is important for the Government to take those points on board when they respond to the debate.

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery institute in Seattle, has done much work on the matter. In an article of 12 June 2003 on www.suicide.com entitled "Suicide Advocacy Goes Online", he notes that suicide promotion and facilitation has entered cyberspace and cites an article by Julia Scheeres from the San Francisco Chronicle of 8 June 2003. Wesley J. Smith's article says:

"In 'A Virtual Path to Suicide,' Scheeres demonstrates how indifferent to the value of human life certain segments of our society have grown, and how callous they are when faced with a despairing person wishing to commit suicide. First, they bestow moral permission. Then, they teach the self-destructive person how to do it. Finally, they keep the suicidal person company until the deed is done. It is the modern version of the howling crowd yelling, 'Jump! Jump!' at the suicidal person standing on the skyscraper window ledge.

This is what happened to 19-year-old Suzy Gonzales. Despite having a full scholarship at Florida State University and a loving family, Gonzales wanted to kill herself. Her suicide was set in motion when she found an Internet site whose participants 'view suicide as a civil right that anyone should be able to exercise, for any reason.' On the site, Scheeres reports, 'Gonzales found people who told her that suicide was an acceptable way to end her despair, and who gave her instructions on how to obtain a lethal dose of potassium cyanide and mix it into a deadly cocktail.' . . . The Hemlock Society"— the USA's largest assisted suicide advocacy group—

"has promoted the idea of suicide as the 'ultimate civil right' for years. And, just like the denizens of the Internet site taught Suzy Gonzales how to kill herself, Hemlock publications have long instructed readers how-to-commit suicide while its conventions regularly feature guest speakers who bring their newly invented suicide machines for conventioneers".

The phenomenon of so-called copycat suicides and suicide pacts is emerging more and more on the internet. In Japan, two men and a woman were victims of a suicide internet website just before the new year. The three young victims, who were not named, suffocated themselves by burning disposable barbecue coals in a car in Mitama in Yamanashi on 30 December. The method—one of the latest to circulate in the suicide internet community—is disturbingly similar to the one used by a Lancashire man in August 2004. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning after suffocating himself by burning disposable barbecue coals.

Japan has been hit by a series of suicide pacts formed in suicide chat rooms. A fortnight before the death of the three young people in Mitama, four men died in a Tokyo apartment following a suicide pact. Early in 2004 another six people were found dead and nine more fell victim to an internet group suicide in October. According to Japan's police force, a staggering 45 people committed suicide in groups after meeting online between January 2003 and June 2004.

Suicide pacts have been made over the internet since the late 1990s and have been reported worldwide, from Guam to the Netherlands. Experts say that they tend to occur in cycles, with news of group suicides sparking copycat incidents, which are discussed on websites. On new year's day this year, an e-mailer to the notorious US-based ASH—alt.suicide.holiday—newsgroup, where people discuss suicide methods, revealed that a 15-year-old girl had used a method detailed on an associated online list of suicide methods to kill herself.

The situation is becoming frightening. For example, on the Google search engine, if one types "I want to kill myself" and hits "search", the fourth result brought back is a notorious suicide message board, with long lists of people who are interested in committing suicide. Getting into contact with people that way is perilous, because people cannot be sure to whom they are talking via a message board or in a chat room—particularly people who are vulnerable and suicidal. There may be contact with a person who gains some form of perverse pleasure from convincing someone that they should kill themselves.

These cases raise a series of questions about how people should conduct themselves when using the internet and what sort of conduct should be allowable. I shall not stray into human rights, because I do not believe that there is a case to answer in terms of people having the right to commit suicide or to encourage others to do so. The human rights arguments might hold some sway in the United States, where groups claim that they can conduct such activities legally and that they are protected by the first amendment to the American constitution, which relates to freedom of speech, but the same is not true in this country. However, I do have some questions to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond.

Will my hon. Friend ask himself whether he believes that suicidal people ought to be talking to those who encourage or promote suicide, which could create—it might already be creating—a community of people on the web who believe that suicide is acceptable, normal and even, as some claim, a "human right"? I understand from PAPYRUS, which is an organisation that was set up to prevent young suicides, that suicide sites are not mentioned in any of the Government's relevant publicity material. Nor are suicide sites mentioned in the national suicide strategy for England. What will the Government do to discourage people from accessing suicide sites, and will they encourage people to seek help?

Would the Government consider setting up a regulatory body to which concerns about websites that may be offensive or harmful can be reported, and pressure the Internet Watch Foundation to act where it can? Should people be guided by the internet service providers to "help" websites first, before allowing access to suicide methods and information, and how can the Government persuade internet service providers to do that?

Will the Government consider the case for prohibiting access to suicide sites altogether through filtering? That may hold some technical difficulties for internet service providers but the problem is technically no different from dealing with illegal pornography on the internet. Should it therefore be made a duty of the service provider?

Is it time to introduce new legislation, as has been done in Australia, that makes it a criminal offence to use the internet to counsel or incite suicide? The legislation there includes a maximum penalty of 110,000 Australian dollars, or £45,000, for an individual. The offences cover the use of a carriage service, including the internet, to access, transmit or make available materials that counsel or incite suicide. It covers also materials that promote and provide instruction on a particular method of suicide. Possession, production or supply of that material is also covered. Will the Government consider incorporating some of the Australian legislation into UK law?

Finally, will the Government consider actively seeking the co-operation of international police authorities and crime agencies, such as Interpol and Europol, to crack down on these sites?

I am sure that the so-called peddlers of death can hide behind internet chat rooms and carefully constructed rhetorical arguments that are meant to mask their macabre fantasies, but it is the duty of elected representatives and Government to do everything in their power to pursue, prohibit and prosecute these promoters of suicide, even if the internet environment makes that task more difficult.

The parents and family of Sarah Cherry deserve no less, as do the families of those who have already been victims of these people and their vile material. There are also those who face difficult lives and need help because of mental illness or suffering who may one day fall prey to this evil.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 7:47 pm, 25th January 2005

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick on securing this debate on an issue which I know arouses considerable interest. That was evidenced by the fact that a number of hon. Members have contributed to the debate.

The Government are well aware of the growing concern about suicide websites and chat rooms that can provide information and potential influence over vulnerable young people who may feel encouraged to take their own lives. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that Ministers have already been contacted by PAPYRUS, an organisation that has twice been mentioned this evening. It is a UK charity that is committed to suicide prevention, as part of its wider campaign to raise awareness of the potential dangers of such websites.

In July last year, my colleague Baroness Scotland, the Minister of State, met members of PAPYRUS and a cross-party delegation of Members to discuss their concerns. My colleague has since corresponded with them about what the Government are doing to try to tackle this complex problem.

Perhaps I should emphasise at the outset that while my remarks will reflect the complex nature of the law in this area, I have the greatest sympathy for those whose lives and families have been touched by the tragedy of suicide.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I was a member of the delegation that met Baroness Scotland. As the Minister has said, it was a useful meeting for those of us who went with PAPYRUS. The point that she made forcefully—I hope that the Minister will acknowledge this—is that this is a classic case of joined-up Government. It has been necessary to deal with a number of problems. The Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health are clearly the front Departments concerned. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that there is an important role to be played by a number of Departments if we are to be successful in dealing with the problem.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman, and I shall deal later with the various responsibilities that we all have.

We have heard from the parents of a number of young people who have killed themselves after visiting such websites. To lose a child in such circumstances is devastating, and it is vital that we do all that we can to raise awareness of the issue and prevent other young people from taking the same course. Of course, the problem is not confined to websites. As the tragic case of Sarah Cherry illustrates, information about suicide and suicide methods is available through other media, including books. Sarah took her own life after buying a book from the internet bookstore Amazon bearing the appalling title, "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying". That publication could equally have been obtained through any high street bookstore, but the internet clearly makes it easier than ever before for people to obtain such material.

I am aware of the concern expressed by the Preston coroner that such books are in circulation. My hon. Friend Mr. Borrow has tabled early-day motion 170, which has so far attracted 77 signatures. Many of the concerns about this issue have been directed at the Home Office, which has clear responsibility for the criminal law on assisted suicide as well as for policy on law enforcement relating to hi-tech crime. Other Government Departments also have a role to play. In particular, the Department of Health has responsibility for the Government's suicide prevention strategy, which was published in September 2002 and aims to reduce the death rate from suicide by one fifth by 2010.

The Department for Education and Skills, through the superhighway safety initiative, provides important advice to teachers, parents and children to reduce the risks of schoolchildren being exposed to inappropriate content and contact via the internet. The Department of Trade and Industry has responsibility for ensuring that the United Kingdom is a market leader in the e-business sector, and that the relevant legislation is conducive to that aim. The Government's clear view is that actions are legal or illegal according to their merits, rather than according to the medium used. What is illegal offline should also be illegal online. While there is not any specific legislation relating solely to the internet, a range of existing UK law covers what online or offline actions constitute an offence, including the Obscene Publications Acts, public order and harassment offences, fraud and copyright offences.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

How could existing legislation be used against people who propagate this stuff from another country, not just from England and Wales, to which the Suicide Act 1961 refers?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will come to the Suicide Act in a moment, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. Even if we are successful in closing down websites or removing websites based in the UK that promote such material, it could be accessed from websites in other countries, which poses a substantial challenge. We must therefore work with other Governments and law enforcement agencies where appropriate to deal with the issue. The internet presents us with a global challenge, which we must meet with a global response.

If an individual in the UK produces material on a suicide website, and in doing so commits an offence, the prosecuting authorities can take action against him and seek the removal of the material. The difficulty is that most material hosted on such sites, although considered distressing and distasteful by the majority, is not necessarily illegal. Suicide itself is not an offence, but section 2(1) of the Suicide Act makes it an offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure another person to commit or attempt suicide. For aiding and abetting to be proved, there must be participation in the act of suicide, as well as a knowledge of what is going to take place. Someone who counsels or procures is liable only for an act of suicide that is committed as a consequence of what he does, so there must be a causal connection between the counselling and procuring and the commission of the act. Establishing that causal link is fundamental to proving that an offence has occurred.

If an individual helps someone to inject himself with a lethal drug or supplies the lethal drug knowing that it is required for the purpose of committing suicide, they could be charged with aiding and abetting. But simply providing information about suicide does not in itself necessarily amount to aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring, any more than providing information about ways to commit murder would constitute an offence. This is a crucial point. There are many works of reputable fiction which describe criminal activity, or indeed suicide, and thereby give an indication of how to commit the acts. Even though there is no intention to encourage them, they could in reality be the catalyst for someone who was on the brink.

So the direct causal link must be clearly established, and it is highly unlikely that those producing these websites will participate in specific acts of suicide or know that they are going to take place. Similarly, in terms of counselling and procuring, it would be difficult to establish a causal link between the websites and the commission of actual suicides.

An example of how this works in practice is the booklet published by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which describes the easiest and most painless ways of committing suicide. The court held that an offence would be committed only if the distributor intended that the booklet would be used by someone who was contemplating suicide, and that the individual was in fact assisted or encouraged to do so. Although the content of suicide websites, and books such as the one purchased by Sarah Cherry, may well be considered more objectionable than the Voluntary Euthanasia Society booklet, it seems likely that the same interpretation would apply to those who produce them because, in essence, they are doing the same thing—giving general information about ways to commit suicide.

In practice, whether an offence is committed would depend not only on the actual content, but on factors such as whether there had been any communication between the authors of the material and the person who wanted to or did commit suicide. If anything, it might be even more difficult to prove than the Voluntary Euthanasia Society case, in which specific individuals were sent copies of booklets on request.

There may be a greater likelihood of an offence being committed by users of the chat rooms that can be accessed through these websites, rather than those responsible for the sites themselves. For example, if a person asks in a chat room how to commit suicide, is told by someone else how to do it, and does in fact then commit or attempt to commit suicide, that individual may be guilty of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide or attempted suicide—although, as always, that would depend on the circumstances of the case.

PAPYRUS has asked whether it would be possible to further test the law by bringing a case that would confirm whether the giving of information and general encouragement, whether through a website's actual content or by the user of a chat room accessed through the website, could be held to be aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring. It is, of course, for the courts to interpret the law, but we have drawn the concerns of PAPYRUS and others to the attention of the Attorney-General.

As I said earlier, it is difficult to see how the law might be amended to prohibit these websites. Even leaving aside freedom of expression issues, it would be a radical departure to make it an offence simply to give general information about something that is not in itself illegal. There might also be unintended consequences for legitimate activities—for example, criminalising crime fiction, or even websites that may be seeking to offer help to those who are contemplating suicide.

In conclusion, there are many things that we must do and that we can do. I chair the taskforce on child protection on the internet, and there are read-across issues there. The Department of Health has a clear role to play. The internet service providers also have a role to play. They have various policies in place to try to provide additional protection in this difficult area. It is complex, there is no quick fix, but the Government are determined to do what they can to prevent this kind of dreadful suicide.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eight o'clock.