I also welcome this Bill and congratulate Senator Neville and the other members of Fine Gael for putting it on the Order Paper. I am delighted to support the Bill and to give it the support of the Labour party and I would be delighted to see it accepted by the Minister.
This is very necessary legislation. It seeks to decriminalise the crime of suicide or attempted suicide. Anybody who takes a reasonable attitude to the whole area of crime and punishment must regard this as a pressing matter. It is ludicrous to say you can punish somebody for taking his or her life. Once the person is dead he or she could hardly be punished. It is ludicrous to have that type of offence on the Statute Book and is ineffective as a deterrent. We should have introduced this legislation years ago. In fact in the neighbouring island it is 25 to 30 years since suicide or attempted suicide was decriminalised. The problem, of course, is that it results in a stigma and shame on the family of the unfortunate person who has taken his or her life. In the past all the issues associated with it, the criminal action taken, the forfeiture of goods, the stigma, the ostracisation, the denial of a Christian burial, hark back to a previous era which we should leave behind. We should have a much more enlightened attitude.
Criminalising something is supposed to punish, to deter, to reform, to rehabilitate but the law at present does not do any of those things in relation to suicide; therefore, it should be taken off the books and we should deal with the underlying problem. We should respond to this problem as a Christian society. We should shift from the negative approach of criminalising and shunning, to a positive approach of sympathy, counselling, assistance and treatment for those at risk. That should be our new approach. It is an issue of public and social health as well as a symbol of a humane society. Very little work is done to help people at risk who might commit suicide. I would like to compliment the Samaritans for their work in this area. It is a lonely path they follow and they give very good advice. That is the type of approach necessary to deal with the problem.
It is very difficult to estimate the number of suicides. The official records are generally regarded as an underestimation. The recorded figure given at present is approximately 300 suicides per year and if we increse that figure by 20 per cent that works out at nine per 100,000 — and that is the conservative estimate.
The most recent studies were carried out by Kelleher and Daly. Last year, for males between 17 and 35 years, there was a 300 per cent increase and the group most at risk were at the younger end of the scale. According to the study, the suicide rate among Irish males under the age of 35 increased by over 300 per cent from 1970 to 1985, an enormous increase. There are many reasons people commit suicide. There has been an increase in substance abuse, and a major increase in unemployment.
The study revealed that in the Cork area two-thirds of those who had committed suicide were unemployed. That is an extremely serious statistic. Those people were very depressed because of the circumstances in which they had to live. Psychiatric problems obviously are another factor.
I would like to dwell for a moment on the prisons because that has not been dealt with so far. This is where we have the highest number of suicides, and the most accurate statistics. The recent report of the Advisory Group on Prisons was published in August 1991. Their figures were quite alarming. They found that, while the national average was nine per 100,000 of the population — taking the recorded figure and adding a 15 to 20 per cent increase to give it that conservative estimate — the current equivalent in the prisons was 143 per 100,000, in excess of 16 times the national average. Under any circumstances that can only be described as an alarming statistic. It confirms something I have been saying for years, that there has been an increase in the incidence of deaths in prison and that nothing has been done about it. In Scotland the comparative figure of 64 per 100,000 in prisons and in England and Wales 105, so we can see that the increase in Ireland is far in excess of that of any of the other countries, and the growth in the Irish prison system is far in excess of that in England, Wales or Scotland.
Let me give a couple of statistics in relation to those people who died in prisons over the last 16 years. Thirty five per cent of them were on remand. That means they were not convicted of any offence. Over one-third had been in for a short period. Seventy four per cent hanged themselves from prison bars. Of course there should have been some protection. Fifty seven per cent in Mountjoy, had psychiatric and/or drug abuse problems. Seventy per cent were under the age of 25, and 26 per cent had previously tried to take their own lives. Two thirds occurred between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. and two thirds again took place in the last six of the 16 years, which indicates the increasing incidence of deaths in prison, and seven out of the last 12 took place in Mountjoy in the last two years.
Obviously there is a serious problem of identification there. There is a cohort of people who are particularly at risk and we need to ensure that there are adequate medical services to assist those. The increasing problem of AIDS, the segregation, the stigma and the trauma that is associated with that has led to deaths that would probably not otherwise have occurred. We need a whole review of policy in relation to monitoring, identification and treatment. It is ironic that somebody who goes to prison because they are convicted of an offence end up with a sentence of death because of the circumstances in which they have been detained. That is another major reason why we should review our prison system. There certainly are categories of people for whom prison is totally unsuitable and for whom it is, in fact, a death sentence.
The Bill is very short, it is to the point and it does not require major changes to implement it. It can be implemented overnight without any difficulty. I would prefer if the Minister simply took it on board and introduced it rather than waiting for the more complex legislation the Minister has promised. I am not sure if he would have promised it if this Bill had not been put on the Order Paper. I congratulate Fine Gael and Senator Neville, in particular, for doing so.
It behoves us all, at this time in our society, to ensure that we establish a caring, and humane society. We have to show that by certain shifts in emphasis and priorities. The obvious shift in emphasis here is from the negative, punitive approach to what is essentially a social problem and a personality problem to a sympathetic, caring, medical and treatment approach.
The first step would be implementing this legislation to decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide and then provide a proper caring service to assist those who are at risk and to ensure that they are protected from circumstances that give rise to them taking their own lives, which is tragic for them, and their families.