Seanad Éireann - Volume 135 - 28 April, 1993
Private Business. - Suicide Bill, 1993: Second Stage.
Question proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: For the information of the House, the Second Stage on this Bill is being treated in the same manner as a non-Government motion. The same procedural arrangements will apply in relation to the rota of speakers and the time allocations. The overall time limit for this debate is two hours. The time limits are: the Minister, not more than 15 minutes; the proposer of the motion, not more than 15 minutes; speech of each Senator, ten minutes and the proposer to reply or some other Senator that he may wish to nominate, ten minutes.
Mr. Neville Mr. Neville
Mr. Neville: I, too, welcome the Minister to the House. It is time Irish society faced the fact that the suicide rate has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. In recent times there have been some very high profile suicides and it is time for the State to address this issue and for anti-suicide measures to be introduced.
 Decriminalising suicide and attempted suicide is a prerequisite to any anti-suicide measures. To regard either suicide or attempted suicide as crimes would be silly if it were not so tragic. It is time we stopped taking a “head in the sand” approach to the issue and brought it out in the open. The taboo and stigma surrounding suicide should be eliminated and potentially suicidal people should be treated with compassion and understanding.
In November 1991 I introduced a Private Members' Bill to decriminalise suicide. The then Minister for Justice, Deputy Ray Burke, in rejecting my Bill, promised to have a Bill ready within one month, by Christmas of that year. That did not happen. In the spring of 1992 the Leader of Seanad Éireann stated that difficulties had arisen with the drafting of sections of a Bill which would include the decriminalisation of suicide. It was to have been ready by the summer of 1992, but because no further information was forthcoming, Fine Gael placed a motion on the Order Paper of Seanad Éireann on 6 May 1992 calling on the Government to decriminalise suicide and to set up a task force to tackle the mounting problem of youth suicide. Nothing happened and in October last year Fine Gael published a new Bill to decriminalise suicide and to introduce measures to improve the recording of suicide statistics. Despite this, there was no movement from the Government except to repeat that certain sections of their Bill which did not relate to suicide were creating drafting difficulties and these would be overcome as quickly as possible.
Last week Fine Gael informed the Government that at Private Members Business today a Bill to decriminalise suicide would be introduced. This morning the Government published a Bill to decriminalise suicide. No other issue is dealt with in this despite the fact that we were informed over a 15 month period that there were difficulties with the Bill because it took a comprehensive list of legislation into account.
We now have a Bill to deal with suicide and I welcome that. It is almost identical  to the Fine Gael Bill which was introduced in 1991. If the Government was serious about the issue it would have used that opportunity to deal with it. In fairness, to the Minister, she was not the Minister at the time but the Government should have used the opportunity presented by Fine Gael in 1991 to decriminalise suicide. This would have brought Ireland in line with all other western countries.
The Bill before the House tonight sets out to bring the provisions of criminal law in the area into conformity with the needs and outlook of the present day. Its purpose is simple. It provides that it shall no longer be a crime to commit suicide or to attempt to commit suicide. As suicide is considered a crime it follows that an attempt to commit suicide is also a crime punishable by law. The basis of the Bill presented is that in the humane outlook of today it is recognised that those who commit suicide are in need of compassion and assistance and not the implementation of criminal law.
It is ridiculous to suggest, as the present law does, that people who attempt to commit suicide are people with criminal tendencies in the ordinary sense. They are actuated by a variety of motives, such as mental illness, despair, depression, feelings of acute rejection and sometimes merely intense loneliness. The Bill also provides for the proper recording of suicide statistics. Section 30 of the Coroner's Act, 1962, prohibits the bringing of a verdict of suicide by a coroner's jury and also prohibits investigation into the deceased's mental state where it is clear that the fatal injuries are self inflicted.
Section 5 of this Bill provides for the accurate recording of suicide figures. There is extreme anguish, anger, disbelief and spiritual confusion among the family and friends of the suicide victim. Bereavement counselling of a high professional standard is required. The stigma of criminality adds to the distress of the bereaved. This Bill removes this stigma and brings Irish law into conformity with the views of the Irish people. It begins to recognise the fact that suicide must be  regarded as a social disease and not a crime.
The fact that suicide and attempted suicide still remain a crime in Ireland is an indication of our failure to recognise the outcome of research into the area, and reflects a tendency by Irish society to view suicide as a scandal rather than a tragedy. We must begin to understand the pressures on people which have caused suicide rates in Ireland to increase six fold since 1970. Society must accelerate its change in attitude and recognise suicide as a public health issue. The families of victims should receive understanding and compassion together with professional counselling.
In the 1960s the official record for suicides averaged 60 deaths per annum. In 1991 this figure was 318 deaths. It has long been accepted that there is an under-recording of suicide incidents. It is accepted that the true figures are two and a half to three times the official rate. Studies conducted into suicide statistics in counties Limerick, Cork and Galway confirm this. These studies add further weight to the view that the true suicide rate is in the region of 1,000 deaths per year. The compiling of accurate figures is hampered by the fact that the coroner is precluded from returning a verdict of suicide.
In other countries the rate of suicide has been found to correlate significantly with levels of crime, alcoholism, illegitimacy and divorce. These can be taken as a measure of the cohesiveness of society. Since 1970 the illegitimacy rate in Ireland has increased from 5.7 per thousand to 12.7 per thousand. The number of indictable crimes has doubled. The increase in alcoholism is measured by admission to hospital for alcoholism, and the per capita increase in consumption of alcohol correlates with the increase in suicide in that time. The Irish marriage rate between 1971-84 fell from 7.4 per thousand to 5.8 per thousand. These four measures confirm international findings in an Irish context. This does not offer a causative explanation, but suggests that the same forces that lead to the changes  I have mentioned also influence the rise in suicide levels.
Unemployment is linked to the increase in suicides. Unemployment has a profound effect, especially on the young and those in early middle age. Irish society awards status and prestige according to a person's position and contribution at work. Unemployment is associated with loss of face and prestige. The unemployed are six times more likely than those in employment to be suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Studies have shown that there is significantly more unemployment, job instability and occupational problems among suicide victims compared to those who did not commit suicide.
In decriminalising suicide the responsibility for this area must be transferred from the Department of Justice to the Department of Health which should be responsible for developing anti-suicide programmes. I wish to compliment the Samaritans and other organisations for the excellent work they do in this area. However a counselling system should be introduced immediately by the State for potential suicide victims and those bereaved as a result of suicide.
As an urgent first step each health board should be requested to appoint a counsellor whose role would be to advise and intervene where attempted suicide takes place and to counsel those bereaved as a result of suicide. The counsellor should also be available to be contacted by people contemplating suicide.
Suicide, whether a crime or not, remains a human tragedy as well as a social problem of increasing proportions. Criminalising suicide, far from preventing it, further stigmatises what is already considered an unspeakable act. Suicide is therefore concealed in a blanket of silence and those thinking of suicide fear to talk. Criminalising suicide just makes the problem worse rather than helping to alleviate it.
Section 1 of the Bill provides the short title of the Act. Section 2 is the definition section. Section 3 provides that from the date on which the Bill passes into law, it shall no longer be an offence to commit  suicide or to attempt to commit suicide. Section 4 will guard against exploitation of those who may be vulnerable to suggestions of suicide. An offence under this section is punishable on trial and indictment by up to ten years imprisonment under the Bill. This is to avoid the introduction of euthanasia by the back door. This provision is necessary because under section 3, aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide of another would not be a crime, if suicide were simply decriminalised. At the moment such activities may constitute the offence of murder or attempted murder. This will no longer be the case if the Bill is passed. Instead, an offence under this section would be committed. The section also provides that a jury may bring in a verdict finding the accused guilty of an offence under subsection (1) of this section.
Section 5 deals with the recording of suicide. The compilation of true statistics for suicide is hampered by the fact that a coroner is precluded from returning a verdict of suicide. This legal impediment was confirmed in the 1989 judgment of Mr. Justice Johnson in which he found that a coroner is precluded from inquiring into the mental capacity of the deceased, even to produce an innocent explanation of the action of the self killer. This has significant public health implications with regard to our understanding of suicide and the planning of appropriate services to deal with its consequences.
Our statistics do not derive directly from coroners' reports. Since 1967 confidential police reports are supplied to the Central Statistics Office on deaths suspected of being unnatural. These reports are influenced by the opinion of the individual garda as to whether a case is suicide or not. This is unsatisfactory. In Switzerland two certificates are issued on death. The attending doctor fills out two certificates, one to the family recording the case of death and the other to the Central Statistics Office which is confidential.
Section 30 of the Coroner's Act prohibits the bringing in of a verdict of suicide. From the date of the Bill's  enactment suicide shall no longer be a crime. Self killing might still give rise to questions of civil or criminal liability. Because of the social stigma attached to suicide it is felt that if the Minister for Health exercises his power to establish a scheme under this section, section 30 of the Coroner's Act should continue to have force. The scheme for conferring such powers on the Minister addresses the difficulty which all those interested in public health policy and practice in Ireland face, in trying to determine the nature, extent and cause of the problem in Ireland. The section would allow reliable statistics to be compiled without revealing confidential information to the public or allowing families concerned to know that their loved ones committed suicide.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Minister for Justice (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn) Máire Geoghegan-Quinn
Minister for Justice (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn): Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir Neville as ucht na hoibre móire atá déanta aige ó 1991 ag plé leis an gcás speisialta seo atá faoi chaibideal againn anseo anocht.
May I start my contribution by stating in unequivocal terms that I am fully in favour of the decriminalisation of suicide and have presented a Bill to this House setting out my proposals to achieve this laudable aim. Persons who have suicidal tendencies need help, not the threat of criminal sanctions. Indeed, I do not think we could find any evidence anywhere which would suggest that criminal sanctions in any way deter a person from committing suicide.
It has long been accepted that suicide should not be a crime, and proposals to abolish the offence of suicide were included in a draft criminal law Bill dealing with a variety of criminal law issues which it was hoped would have been published before now. Reference to this draft Bill was made in the debate on suicide in this House in November 1991. To avoid any further delay in implementing the Government's proposals on suicide, shortly after I became Minister for Justice earlier this year I decided to publish a separate Bill dealing specifically with  the issue of suicide, and this has now been done.
Turning now to the Private Member's Suicide Bill, Senator Neville, I know, has a long standing interest in the decriminalisation of suicide. He presented a Suicide Bill to the Seanad in 1991, a second Suicide Bill in 1992 and a third Suicide Bill in 1993. Let me make it clear that I fully agree with Senator Neville that suicide should be decriminalised and let me thank him for keeping the issue in the public eye. He should also be complimented for the work he has put in in the preparation of his Suicide Bill.
While I agree with many of the principles behind Senator Neville's Bill, he does not have available to him the expertise or advice of the Parliamentary Draftsman, the Attorney General or officials in the Department of Justice. There are a number of drafting and technical matters in his Bill which cause difficulties for me. I could not, therefore, accept his Bill in preference to my own published proposals. To avoid the accusation that the Government is not supporting the Bill solely because it is a Private Member's Bill I feel obliged to outline the difficulties which it presents.
In section 2 the Bill defines “suicide” as meaning the intentional taking of one's own life. That definition is not entirely consistent with the existing law as it does not deal with two situations where a person may intentionally take his own life without committing the existing offence of suicide. The situations to which I refer involve a child who has not reached the age of responsibility and a person who is deemed to have no criminal responsibility for his actions because of insanity. The offence of suicide is a common law offence and, as such, is well defined by court cases, and it is neither necessary nor desirable to attempt a statutory definition for the purpose of abolishing it.
Section 3 of the Bill reproduces exactly the wording of section 1 of the English Suicide Act, 1961. As you will see from the Government's Bill our Parliamentary  Draftsman prefers a more succinct form of words to abolish the offence of suicide.
Section 5 of the Bill causes a great number of problems. In the explanatory memorandum to the Bill it is stated that section 5 (1) “prohibits the bringing in of a verdict of suicide by a Coroner's jury”. In fact, the advice I have received is that it does not achieve this aim. The provision is based on the assumption that, even after the crime of suicide is abolished, section 30 of the Coroner's Act, 1962, would continue to prohibit an inquest returning a verdict of suicide.
The existing prohibition on returning a verdict of suicide arises because such a finding involves investigation and consideration of the criminal liability of the deceased person for his own death and is, therefore, not allowed under section 30. Once the offence of suicide is abolished, a finding of suicide does not attribute criminal liability to any person. Complicity in suicide will be an offence but provided the inquest does not investigate, or consider who aided and abetted the suicide, there should be no conflict with section 30.
The High Court in the case of Green v McLoughlin December 1989 stated that:
The mere finding by a jury (at an inquest) that someone had died as a result of murder, infanticide or manslaughter does not fix any person with criminal or civil liability in respect of that particular occurrence, therefore, it is possible for such verdicts to be brought in by a jury once again setting out how, when and where death occurred.
The same reasoning will be applicable to a verdict of suicide once the offence of suicide has been abolished as the verdict itself will not attribute criminal liability to a specific person as an accomplice, or attribute civil liability. As section 30 will not prohibit a verdict of suicide it cannot in the words of subsection (1) “continue to prohibit” such a verdict.
Even if there was no difficulty with the drafting of section 5 (1) I have serious reservations about the principle behind section 5. It seems to envisage that an  inquest would return one verdict in public but a different verdict in private. This seems dubious in the extreme and runs counter to the purpose of inquests which is to determine publicly the identity of the deceased and how, when and where the death occurred. I am fully aware that suicide is a sensitive subject but I do not think the way to tackle the problem is to pretend publicly that it does not exist. The explanatory memorandum to this Bill clearly identified this problem when it pronounced that “Suicide is therefore concealed in a blanket of silence and those with thoughts of it fear to talk of it.” I am of the view that this blanket of silence should be removed. We are all aware that the death of a loved one causes grief to the family and friends and this can be accentuated where the death was self-inflicted. I am not convinced, however, that it is in the long term interest of those who have to overcome this grief that the reality of the situation should be covered up.
Section 5 also deals with the question of gathering statistics on suicide. I have been advised that the verdicts returned by inquests are not relied upon when gathering statistics on suicide and, in any event, I do not think a Bill dealing with the decriminalisation of suicide is the best vehicle for addressing the issue of statistics.
The Bill makes no attempt to deal with section 9 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Ireland) Act, 1871. That section, which was originally limited to the Dublin metropolis, allows a person who confesses to attempted suicide to be dealt with summarily in certain circumstances and to be subject to a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment. In the Courts of Justice Act, 1936, the provision was extended, in effect, to the entire country. It would be most unsatisfactory to abolish the offence of suicide and leave this provision on the Statute Book.
I hope I have made it clear why the Government cannot support this Private Member's Bill. As there is now a Government Bill decriminalising suicide before the House, I would ask Senator Neville not to pursue his own Bill. It would be  most unfortunate to have a divisive vote on an issue where we both share the same fundamental aim which is to decriminalise suicide.
I now ask the Whips of this House to arrange for Second Stage to be taken in this House as soon as possible in view of what I feel is widespread support to decriminalise suicide.
Mr. Crowley Mr. Crowley
Mr. Crowley: I welcome the Minister to the House. It is an honour for me to speak on this issue. I am sure each one of us in this House has come in contact with a family that has suffered a suicide. It is a very emotional and thought-provoking situation for any family to find themselves in when a family member has died in that way. There is the stigma of shame and a sense of guilt as well as self-doubt with people questioning themselves as to whether they could have done something to stop what happened. It is important to realise that what people in this situation need most is sympathy and understanding, not punishment.
I congratulate Senator Neville on his tireless work to bring this issue to the forefront in this House on several occasions. He is to be commended highly for the work he has done to date. As the Minister has already pointed out, there are anomalies in Senator Neville's Bill which we, on the Government side, feel are better covered by the Bill to be introduced by the Minister.
I would like in particular to speak about section 2 of the proposed new Bill which deals with aiding and abetting suicide. A 1984 English case, the Attorney General v. Able, was decided under section 2 of the United Kingdom Suicide Act, 1961. That Act abolished suicide but retained liability for secondary participation whether it was aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring a suicide. In that case Mr. Justice Woolf said that before an offence can be established to have been committed, it must be proved that the alleged offender had the necessary intent to assist or otherwise encourage another's suicide. This is relevant to so-called suicide pacts. Under the present law, the survivor of a suicide pact would  be guilty of attempted suicide, murder or manslaughter depending on the circumstances. Mr. Justice Kennedy, in 1903 said: “If two persons agree that they will each take poison, each person is a principal and each is guilty.”
There was much discussion about a similar Bill in the House of Lords in 1961 when the UK introduced their Bill. At that time reference was made to the ancient Roman and Greek traditions of Felo de se which is the legal equivalent of suicide. Through time immemorial it has been recognised as being honourable for one to commit suicide, for example, hara-kiri in the Japanese and samurai traditions. It is time for us to take a close look at the trauma caused by suicide. At this late stage in the State's history, we should realise that criminalising suicide did not work as a deterrent. It could not be enforced against an offender because, unfortunately, the offender had died.
The last prosecution for attempted suicide in this country was around 1967. That is a reflection of how much society has advanced in that the prosecuting authority is more interested in providing treatment and care for people who have attempted suicide and who have, fortunately, failed in that attempt. There must be more research into the reasons for suicide which are many and varied. They include not only psychological but physical and material needs.
I am happy with the Government's Bill. Again I would like to commend Senator Neville for highlighting this issue and for sometimes taking an unpopular stand.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister to the House.
I will start by quoting from the editorial in this week's Irish Medical Times:
The existence of the “crime” of suicide on the Statute Book is in itself a lunacy, an anachronistic testimony to the languor and insensitivity of successive legislators and lawyers. Recent efforts have been made and the omens are good. But here, as in so many  other areas of public life, actions would speak much louder than words.
Senator Neville has to be commended for his persistence over the last few years in bringing forward his Bill. Even if his Bill is not accepted by the Government it has fuelled the Government into bringing forward reciprocal legislation.
As Senator Neville said, suicide is a public health issue, and the increase in the number of suicides over the last two decades has been appalling. There has been an increase internationally but the rate of increase here has been higher than elsewhere. It is difficult to ascertain why but there is a definite increase because psychiatrists in the Galway and Cork regions carried out major surveys on this subject. Senator Neville said that while the number of suicides is still under-reported, there is a better reporting system now. If that were so, we would have a lower incidence of what are described as accidental deaths. There has been no decrease in the number of accidental drownings or accidental shootings. This means we have a serious problem. The rise in the number of suicides among young men has been the most serious. This has been accompanied by a rise in unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse; the breakdown of families and the weakening of religious ties which may have been important in deterring people from committing suicide.
In a review of suicide, published in 1992, it was shown that some actions could be taken in the public health area. The Psychological Society of Ireland highlighted the fact that certain individuals are at high risk of suicide. Most suicidal individuals manifest high levels of perfectionism, rigidity in thinking and negative beliefs concerning life's problems as well as distorted and unrealistic attitudes towards love and achievement. This review calls for us, as a society, to have a primary intervention programme on suicide and to recognise that suicide should be dealt with in public fora including schools, the community care programme and the media. The medical profession has particular responsibilities regarding  suicide. It has responsibilities regarding the individual patient but it also has a responsibility to try to influence the psychiatric services and society in general to develop and change in such a way as to bring about a decrease in these tragic cases.
Quite a large number of people who commit suicide have been psychiatric patients, in-patients or out-patients, in our psychiatric institutions. The medical profession has a responsibility to resist pressure to discharge people before they are clinically ready. It is popular now to have patients with psychiatric illness — and rightly so — treated in the community. It is most important, however, that those who may have suicidal tendencies should not be discharged from hospitals for economic reasons and pressure for beds.
Many people who commit suicide do give indications, often verbally, that they intend to do so. This is where society has a function. In the Garden of Eden when Cain replied, “Am I my brother's keeper?” it was not considered a very good excuse. We have a responsibility to members of society who are vulnerable to suicide. As Senator Neville said the Samaritans tackle this problem for us and I would like to praise them for their work. There was an excellent explanation of their work in The Irish Times yesterday. One of the most interesting points made was that in the Dublin area alone, they need 50 more volunteers. This indicates the number of potential suicides in this area.
The increase in the incidence of suicide in our prisons is appalling. The most common method of suicide is hanging. The Department of Justice set up a special advisory group on prison deaths in 1991. I am sure it was only coincidence that the highest number of suicides within the prison system were in the six months following the setting up of that advisory group. While some of the recommendations of that group have been introduced, we have no idea which have been brought in and if they were considered the most important.
I would like more openness about what  is being done to decrease the rate of suicide in our prisons. This coincides with the position in psychiatric hospitals. Dr. Charles Smith, the director of the Central Mental Hospital, reported recently that about five per cent of prison inmates are suffering from psychiatric illness. Has anything been done to give these people a proper therapeutic nursing environment within the prison system? In Dr. Smith's study five of those incarcerated were suffering from schizophrenia, one from reactive psychosis and one from major depression. These are only the serious psychiatric conditions. I have no information about the lesser ones.
In the Green Paper on Mental Health published last June by the Department of Health there is a chapter on mentally disordered offenders where it is said that the courts are in an unfortunate position, being unable to refer patients directly to psychiatric hospitals. I quote from the chapter: “The removal of people who were mentally ill from the prisons was a major goal towards the mentally ill in the last century”. I stress, this was policy in the last century. There are still people in our prisons who are mentally ill. I quote Mr. Justice Henchy from the third interim report in 1978:
Many persons were dealt with by the courts as normal offenders who are either not responsible or not fully responsible for the conduct charged against them and who, even if fully responsible for such conduct, are in need of psychiatric or other special treatments. The inability or restricted ability of the courts to order that the convicted persons receive appropriate, psychiatric treatment is a grave defect in the present state of criminal law.
In most European countries it is possible for mentally ill offenders to be referred directly to hospitals. The European Court of Human Rights commended this facility and said mentally ill offenders must be in a position both ethically and from a scientific point of view to receive treatment equal to that available to any other mentally ill person. This is the position in Northern Ireland where it is  possible to refer the mentally ill to hospital straight from court.
We have already had suicides in the new Wheatfield prison, which cost £14 million and was supposed to be suicide-proof. It might be helpful if educational and training facilities there were fully utilised. There are sections where people were to dine in groups of 16. That has not been implemented. Prisoners have to collect their food at a hatch and take it back to their cells. This leads to an undesirable sense of isolation. About 80 per cent of the prisoners who commit suicide are only weeks in prison. Many of them are on remand and half of those do not receive custodial sentences when they eventually come to trial.
Mr. Maloney Mr. Maloney
Mr. Maloney: I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the Bill by Senator Neville. If it helps to speed up the introduction of the Bill by the Government it must be applauded.
Suicides in Ireland have increased fourfold over the period of 20 years up to 1988. That is the figure for recorded suicides until 1988. However, I have no doubt the real figure is much higher. People are inclined to hide suicide and various reasons are given for sudden death. I notice also that up until 1988 the figure for male suicides in Ireland was 12.2 per 100,000 whereas for females it was 3.4. Perhaps we can learn something from that.
It is difficult to collect suicide statistics. It is unacceptable for coroners to bring in a verdict of suicide; they have to record death from suspected suicide as self-induced. For some reason, the rural suicide rate in Ireland is much higher than the urban rate. Loneliness and isolation would perhaps be factors.
As Senator Henry says the suicide rates in prison have increased dramatically over the last number of years, especially among younger prisoners. I do not know if anything can be done about this sad situation. Prisoners are locked up and institutionalised, taken out of society, away from loved ones and family. This  probably increases the possibilty of suicide.
Suicide is not a disease. It is a result of a number of factors, usually emotional ones, such as guilt and sorrow after a bereavement when a person may be left to face life alone. If one commits suicide because of that it is wrong to classify it as a crime. That is why I welcome the Bill to decriminalise suicide. The present law is an ass and it is good to see it being removed. Shame and fear are other reasons for committing suicide. We may never unearth all of the reasons.
The increases in suicide have corresponded with increases in drug and alcohol abuse. These problems come to the fore in our liberalised society and increased suicide figures seem to be connected with those trends. Unemployment also leads people to commit suicide, as recently highlighted in the media. Marriage problems are another cause, when people are not able to cope with a marital situation and one spouse leaves another. Religious beliefs can also have an effect; one has only to look at the possible mass suicide of an American religious cult last week. Sexual problems have been highlighted dramatically in Ireland over the last number of years, perhaps for the wrong reasons. They also can be a cause of suicide.
What can be done in situations where suicide is a possibility? It is advantageous when a person is admitted to a psychiatric hospital to know of a suicidal tendency. Nursing a person with such a tendency is one of the toughest jobs possible. One must ensure that such persons do not do what they are intent upon doing. Praise is due to the psychiatric staff in Ireland for their care of the suicidal.
It has been discovered from research in the psychiatric services that 50 per cent of the people who have committed suicide intended to do so and had made previous attempts. That is a high figure and gives an indication of the task before us. At least there are warning signs in those cases to which we must be alert.
Senator Henry mentioned suicidal people being discharged from psychiatric hospitals. Lack of proper back up  facilities must be seriously and quickly addressed by the Department of Health. It would be dreadful if people were discharged from psychiatric hospitals for economic reasons to find they are not able to cope after being institutionalised for 20 or 30 years. Countries such as America and Canada have intervention programmes in the form of educational and mental health programmes and specific suicide programmes. We should see if we could implement such programmes in Ireland.
I also send a warning to the media which in many cases sensationalises the Irish suicide problem. They should give more assistance to the general public by informing people how they could cope. The media could work with the Department of Education and the Department of Health to prevent suicide.
Many psychiatric staff are trained as therapists and by talking to the person who intends to commit suicide, they develop a trusting relationship. Many people leaving hospitals are more positive and assertive because of the help they have received. Their problems have been controlled.
The Samaritans do a tremendous job, but, as a voluntary organisation, unfortunately, they are unable to provide this service in rural areas where it is badly needed. They are concentrated in the larger towns. They should be commended for the work they do. Other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous, must be supported because they too bring to the attention of the authorities and the medical people the fact that certain people intend to commit suicide. People have been saved as a result of their action.
I welcome the Bill to decriminalise suicide. How can a person be charged when they are dead? Primary intervention is needed to stop suicide. The health boards have a major role to play in this area. A life skills programme would educate people early about the help which is available, before they take that final step. I call on the Minister for Health to develop a national policy on suicide prevention.
I ask Senator Neville to withdraw his  Bill. However, I congratulate him for introducing it. Perhaps it encouraged the Government to do something about it. I congratulate the Minister for requesting that the Bill be initiated in the Seanad.
Mr. Howard Mr. Howard
Mr. Howard: I will discuss only a few points because of the limited time available. I deplore the Government's attitude to Senator Neville's Bill. It will not accept or tolerate an attempt by a Member on this side of the House to introduce legislation, regardless of its importance.
I offer my sincere congratulations to Senator Neville for producing this Bill. It follows on from two Bills which he produced in 1991 and 1992. I congratulate him on his perseverance in pressing this issue and on his determination to produce three Bills on this sensitive subject over a two year period. I recall the unanimous support from this side of the House, particularly from the Members of the Labour Party, for Senator Neville's attempts to decriminalise suicide in his previous Bills. These were similar to the Bill now before the House. I have no doubt that Senator Neville, at his third attempt, has forced the hand of the Government to produce its Bill, which arrived on our desks this morning. I am equally satisfied that had it not been for Senator Neville's consistent pressure, the Government's Bill would never have seen the light of day. I want to put these facts on record.
I have read both Bills. In my view Senator Neville's Bill is more comprehensive. The Government's Bill is a one page attempt to undermine the work done by Senator Neville in the preparation of his Bills. I have listened to the arguments advanced by the Minister. The Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, said that she has been determined to introduce this Bill since her appointment earlier this year. While I accept her sincerity, I am not satisfied with the arguments she outlined. Any reservations the Minister and her advisers have about Senator Neville's Bill could be dealt with by amendments on Committee Stage.
 The Government has consistently stated that it supports open Government and Oireachtas reform. If that commitment is genuine, why did the Government introduce its own Bill in opposition to Senator Neville's? It is an exercise in pretence because the implication is that there is no Member on this side of the House who has the ability or the intellectual capacity to introduce legislation. I reject that and I take exception to it. It reflects poorly on Government claims of support for Oireachtas reform and open Government. It is a display of one-upmanship and it does not convince the public that the commitment to open Government is genuine.
Suicide is a social disease and a tragedy. Society has failed for too long to recognise the psychological pressure which causes a person to take this action. It is no longer acceptable to treat suicide as a crime because it reflects a misunderstanding and coldness on the part of society. The family of a suicide victim deserves sympathy, understanding and support. Death, even in normal circumstances, brings tragedy and sadness. However, death by suicide causes greater tragedy, suffering and sadness for the family and relatives, without adding the stigma of criminality. Families affected by suicide require compassion, help and support. It will always be necessary in a civilised society to retain as an offence any act by a person who assists in a suicide. I suggest that the sanctity of human life must be paramount in any legislation, now or in the future.
I regret that the attempts made by Senator Neville on three different occasions have not been given appropriate consideration. For these reasons, I support his measure and I look forward to voting for it.
Mr. Farrell Mr. Farrell
Mr. Farrell: I congratulate Senator Neville for introducing this Bill. This is his third Bill and he has researched it thoroughly. We all agree that suicide should be decriminalised. I congratulate the Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. She is the finest Minister for  Justice we have ever had, with respect to previous Ministers. She has faced up to a major problem.
A number of speakers referred to alcoholism. The Minister has made a statement on alcoholism and gambling in the Garda Síochána. By accepting responsibility she has begun to rectify this problem. She is to be congratulated and I wish her success. The Government's suicide Bill will be frank, open and without flaws.
Many reasons have been given for people committing suicide. The Leas-Chathaoirleach will remember that in the 1950s suicide was a problem among bachelors in the west because, we were told, that these men were living alone in remote areas. Today young people are vulnerable to suicide but not because they live alone or are lonely. Perhaps they are being pushed too far, especially those going through the education system. Our education system is based on failure. If students do not get a certain number of points they are considered to have failed. I have stated on many occasions that our education system should be based on success. Young people should be required to reach a certain standard in order to pass. Given the lack of space at our third level institutions perhaps a lottery system would provide equal opportunities. We must correct the image of failure in our education system and give people credit when they reach a certain standard. I have compared this system to show jumping; to eliminate a competitor the jumps must be raised. We are raising the points system to reduce the number of students eligible to apply for third level education. If students do not have adequate points they believe they have failed. This system must be eliminated.
The number of suicides in prisons has increased but so, too, has the number of prison inmates. I remember the jubilation in Sligo town when the prison and other prisons around the country were closed during the 1950s and early 1960s. We were delighted we had a civilised country. We had no social workers or  counsellors, other than county councillors. Today we have therapists, counsellors and social welfare officers and more and more problems.
An eminent psychiatrist, and one I greatly admire, told me that if somebody is intent on committing suicide, short of keeping them in a padded cell, we will not stop them.
We should be careful when deciding whether a person has committed suicide. How do we know it was suicide? There is a thin line between accident and suicide. As a young man I was involved in a shooting accident. If it had been fatal, people would have said it was suicide because, having built a new house, I was in debt. I would be careful not to label a person as a suicide victim unless they left a note. People who have accidents are often considered to be suicide victims. I have challenged people who say such things because we must be sure. The Coroner's Act must be amended if we are to have accurate statistics.
The previous speaker mentioned lifeskills programmes. Suicide is not a problem in the north-west because we have a good lifeskills programme. The North-Western Health Board was the first to introduce such a programme. Initially the programme was criticised but it has since proved successful. The North-Western Health Board has the best psychiatric services in this country, despite the fact that we could do with more back-up services. Last week I had the pleasure of opening a psychiatric unit for 18 patients in a high support hostel. The North-Western Health Board provides a superb service for psychiatric patients.
I do not think alcohol, or alcohol abuse, is responsible for suicides but it is responsible for 75 to 80 per cent of our social problems. We seem to be afraid to challenge this problem. Accidents often occur between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. when people are going home from the pub. These accidents are sometimes blamed on road conditions, etc.; alcohol is never considered to be a factor. Alcohol is the cause of the break-up of marriages, homes and families; it even causes trouble between neighbours. Dr. Paddy  Loftus and I have continually spoken out against alcohol. Maybe some day our voices will be heard.
Usually people who commit suicide leave a note and are sober. They know exactly what they are doing. Often people who talk about committing suicide never do so. There is an element of surprise attached to suicide. Friends of the suicide victim never suspect that it might happen. I do not know the answer to this problem. I agree with the Senator who said that the media belabour this problem in an attempt to blame somebody. Many politicians also try to blame somebody — for example, social welfare officers, psychiatrists or the psychiatric service. We should not try to blame people, nobody is to blame. We cannot cope when we do not know what is going to happen. I welcome the Minister's new Bill and I appeal to Senator Neville not to press his Bill.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn Mrs. Taylor-Quinn
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I welcome the opportunity to speak on Senator Neville's Bill. He must be highly commended for the extraordinary work he has done on this sensitive subject and on the three Bills he has presented in succession to this House on the issue. I hope the Government side and the Minister in particular, will have the generosity and decency to respond favourably to Senator Neville's Bill. Rather than press their Bill, which was only published this morning, I hope they will accept Senator Neville's Bill and introduce amendments that they consider necessary on Committee Stage in this House.
The Government reaction displays a meanness and a small mindedness in trying to make political capital out of a tragic and sensitive issue. I do not think that response augurs well and Government Senators should not attempt to demean this House. I do not know when a Private Members' Bill was last passed through this House, if ever. It has been done twice recently in the Dáil and now is a glorious opportunity for us to break our record in the Seanad this evening. I appeal to the Minister of State and to the Minister for Justice, for whom I have the  highest regard and who I believe to be a decent politician and a good Minister, to show the magnanimity one would expect on this occasion.
We must not underestimate the sensitivity of this issue as none of us can imagine the thoughts that go through a person's mind prior to committing suicide nor the distress and trauma they experience before they take their own life. There is the extraordinarily traumatic effect on the family and friends of the deceased and, as Senator Neville said, seven to ten people are directly affected by every instance of suicide. Some of these are seriously affected.
It is recognised that some groups are at high risk of suicide. It is important that the Department of Health, in particular, would provide more resources, make more counsellors available and appoint more psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses to work in community care and be available to those at risk. There has been a higher rate of suicide in recent years amongst younger people in their late teens and their late twenties. In many instances the suicide victims are from families where there is no previous record of suicide and they would not be identified as being at high risk. The Department of Enterprise and Employment has a particular responsibility here as many young Irish people at present experience hopelessness and despair at the realisation that they have little chance of securing employment. They see no alternative to taking their own lives and that is extremely tragic.
Another aspect that has not been addressed this evening is that of psychiatric patients who have been brought into the community. Senator Farrell referred to opening a number of houses in Sligo over the weekend to accommodate psychiatric patients brought into the community. That is highly commendable. However, the nature and extent of support necessary within most health board areas is not available and a number of psychiatric patients who have come into the community in recent years have unfortunately taken their own lives. This  would not have happened if they had been in the psychiatric hospital. I hope that the Minister for Health will address this issue. It is a question of resources, of providing the necessary expertise and skill in the support system for these people once they come into the community. Attempts have been made but there is a need for an increased number of personnel in that area.
The Department of Justice is dealing with the suicide issue tonight so we are considering the simple issue of decriminalising suicide. It is ludricious — Senator Neville saw and responded to it a number of years ago — that we would have on the Statute Book a crime of suicide. The question arises as to who is to be prosecuted? The person to be prosecuted is already dead, which makes a nonsense of having a crime of suicide. Senator Neville must be commended on bringing forward legislation to decriminalise suicide.
The Department of Education could do great work in alerting young people and teachers to potential difficulties. The ordinary person who comes in contact with potential suicide victims should be educated and alerted to recognise the signs in individuals who may be considering such an act. It is important that the Department of Education would seriously consider introducing a skills for life programme at curriculum level at some time in the future as there has been a substantial increase in the level of suicides.
Every effort must be made by Government to ensure that suicide is prevented. It should not be left to voluntary organisations, such as the Samaritans who are established in almost every large town in Ireland and are doing a highly commendable job. They need more support from the health boards and from the Department of Health for the work they are doing.
It has been said this evening that the media should be encouraged to advertise and carry out educational programmes in relation to suicide and advise and alert people about the issues concerned. The Minister of State might raise this matter with the Minister responsible for  communications so that his Department might deal with this issue. This is not only a matter for the Department of Justice, it also concerns the Department of Health, the Department of Enterprise and Employment and the Department of Education. I hope each Department in its own area will address this extremely sensitive issue which cannot be ignored, particularly given the increasing number of suicides.
We must realise that many suicides are not recorded as suicides due to the rules and regulations that exist in relation to the coroner's report at an inquest and, in many instances the local GPs, if they are particularly friendly with families, prefer not to report a death as suicide but attribute it to another factor while the local community are aware of the circumstances.
I hope the Government will see the wisdom of being generous and magnanimous towards Senator Neville who has done trojan work and must be commended by this House for it. The Government should respond by accepting Second Stage and to table amendments on Committee Stage which, I believe, would be acceptable to this side of the House. The reasons put forward by the Minister for not accepting the Senator's Bill were unconvincing.
Mr. Neville Mr. Neville
Mr. Neville: I thank the Senators for their kind statements but I am disappointed the Minister has decided not to accept the Bill tonight. She outlined some problems with the Bill which are in contrast to the statement made by the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Ray Burke, in the Seanad and I quote from the Official Report: “...the legislation we have before us, excellent as it is; I take nothing from it”. It is disappointing that the Minister has decided not to accept the Bill; I think she has not accepted it for the reasons outlined by Senator Howard.
I thank Senator Henry for her contribution. She provided figures for the rates of suicide among young people. In 1990, 56 people under the age of 25 committed suicide, 24 of whom were teenagers;  in 1970, nine people under the age of 25 committed suicide, one was a teenager. This highlights the increase in suicide among younger people as a result of pressure on them. Those involved in third level education have too many examples of students committing suicide, especially in their final year in college. Senator Henry called for primary intervention programmes in schools and I support that as part of the anti-suicide programme to which I referred.
It is very important that the issue of prison suicides be tackled. Senator Henry dealt with this in detail. Item 17 on today's Order Paper is a Fine Gael motion on this issue. In that motion we call on the Government to introduce the suicide prevention strategy as recommended by the 1991 Advisory Committee on Prison Deaths and to immediately improve the psychological services for prisoners, allow the Samaritans access to prisoners, review the system of a special observation list of prisoners considered at risk from suicide, and improve the assessment of prisoners when they are first committed. It is important that a proper psychiatric service be available to prisoners as one of the means of reducing the level of suicide in prisons. Denial of this is in contravention of the spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Senator Maloney referred to the psychiatric services and the work they have done. I compliment those who provide psychiatric services — Senator Maloney is part of that service. However, there is less than proper attention paid to people who attempt suicide when they are admitted to hospitals, often to general hospitals. After a quick psychiatric assessment they are returned to the community. The attitude of hospitals to such people reflects the attitude of the community in general. It is often stated that they are taking up a bed which could be given to somebody who is genuinely ill and are availing of scarce medical resources which might otherwise be available to people in genuine need. This is only a symptom of society's ignorance of the social, even pathological, disease that is suicide and attempted suicide.
 Senator Howard referred to the Government's approach to Private Members' Bills. If such Bills were introduced by backbench politicians in place of Bills introduced by Ministers, the technical difficulties could be amended on Committee Stage. Most of us are amateurs when it comes to drafting legislation. Having researched this Bill, I am only too aware of the difficulties in trying to draw up such legislation. If Bills introduced by Members on both sides of the House were more readily accepted by the Government, the image of the political process would be improved. Under the present system the Government decides legislation and the Opposition tries to amend it, sometimes successfully. Members from the Government parties often feel restrained from introducing such Bills because they would be perceived, wrongly in my view, to be responding in a negative way towards the Government they support. If the attitude towards such Bills were changed, it would benefit the political process and the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Senator Taylor-Quinn referred to the important issue of the distress felt by families of suicide victims. They are inevitably subjected to investigation by police, coroners and insurance agents. The stigma of criminality attached to suicide results in inadequate support being given to survivors. Our reaction to the bereaved of victims of violent and accidental deaths is very different to our reaction to the families of suicide victims. Unlike natural and accidental deaths, there is a stigma associated with suicide which adds to the distress of the bereaved.
I wish to finish by quoting Professor Fahey, Professor of Psychiatry, University College Galway, who has completed his research in this area. On decriminalising suicide he said:
To fail, to do this, now that the cat is out of the bag, will be to confirm that pagan fears of the suicide's ghost still linger in the minds of the Irish people. Suicide is nothing if it is not a tragedy.  It is not a scandal. It is scandalous to regard it so. We should not of course encourage it but it must be decriminalised. Until this is done, we cannot overcome the stigma conferred on families. There is no evidence that decriminalisation stimulates more suicide. On the contrary, it has long been known to psychiatrists that it is a relief to the suicidal to know that they are not alone (and that extreme despair is at most a transitory emotion). And is there not something unacceptable about an archaic law which serves no purpose and which is merely a relic of an age when the State used weapons of taboo and magic to control not only the lives but also the deaths of ordinary people?.
The Minister gave a firm commitment this evening to introduce the Bill within a short period, with the agreement of the Whips. I will talk to our Whip tomorrow with regard to the introduction of that Bill at an early date. If the Bill is not introduced within a reasonable time, by which I mean a month or so, I will propose amendments to the Order of Business to introduce the Government's Bill. We will then have the opportunity to introduce our amendments to that Bill. Therefore, I withdraw the Bill.
Question proposed: “That leave be given to withdraw the motion ‘That the Bill be now read a Second Time’; and that the Bill be withdrawn.”
Question put and agreed to.
Mr. Norris Mr. Norris
Mr. Norris: May I raise a point of order? I understand it is not possible for anybody to speak since Senator Neville has concluded his remarks.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That is correct, Senator.
Mr. Norris Mr. Norris
Mr. Norris: I find this unfortunate because there is half an hour left. I think the Committee on Procedure and Privileges should look at situations where time is left, and there are people who  have been engaged in other political activities——
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: This is a matter that can be raised by your representative on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Mr. Fitzgerald Mr. Fitzgerald
Mr. Fitzgerald: Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 7.30 p.m. and resumed at 8 p.m.
Seanad Éireann 135 Private Business. Suicide Bill, 1993: Second Stage.