Ministers have been accused of failing to address soaring suicide levels in prison as new figures reveal an “alarming” reduction in funding for investigating self-inflicted deaths among inmates.
New analysis reveals the average amount spent on probes into suicides behind bars last year has more than halved since 2012/13 amid record rates of suicide and self harm.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) spent around £12,900 per investigation in 2015/16 compared to £27,000 in 2012/13, prompting concern the independent body lacked the resources to cope with its burgeoning caseload.
The independent body's overall spend on investigations also fell from £1.44 million to £1.27 million within the same period.
Labour MP Luciana Berger, who uncovered the figures through a parliamentary question, warned the Government against sweeping mental health concerns under the carpet, describing the spiralling number of deaths as a “stain on our national consciousness”.
She told The Independent: "This dramatic reduction in the amount being spent on investigations into self-inflicted prison deaths is alarming.
"The PPO is under considerable financial pressure. Its workload has grown exponentially and yet its budget hasn't increased to pay for it.
"It is a tragedy whenever someone takes their life. A rigorous investigation is the very least that loved ones deserve when it happens in one of our prisons.
"The suicide rate of prisoners - the highest on record - is a stain on our national consciousness. Rather than sweep it under the carpet, ministers must act now to get to grips with the worsening mental health crisis in our prisons."
It comes after a critical report by the public spending watchdog revealed that the Government did not know how many prisoners had a mental illness or how much it was spending on the issue.
The National Audit Office warned in its report that prisons were struggling to cope after cuts to funding and staff numbers, while prison authorities’ had offered a poor response to rising suicide and self-harming rates.
Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, warned that the move would hamper efforts to identify failings within prisons although she said it was too early to understand the full impact of the cuts.
She told The Independent: “Our concern would be that at a time when there is an unprecedented number of people dying in our prisons, there is a really crucial need to ensure that deaths are properly investigated and these are robust investigations.
“The danger is that when the PPO are struggling with a high number of deaths, a reduction in funding is a real concern.”
Many families hold “considerable mistrust” for prison authorities and lack conviction that their loved ones’ deaths will be investigated properly, she said.
Ms Coles added: “Deaths in prisons don’t win votes. There has been far too much complacency surrounding deaths in prisons and I think reducing the resources for those responsible for investigations is an example of that.”
Earlier this year, former Justice Secretary Liz Truss vowed to prioritise the issue after official figures revealed that 119 inmates killed themselves in England and Wales in 2016 - the highest number since records began.
The PPO said that 70 per cent of self-inflicted deaths were prisoners with mental health needs between 2012 and 2014.
There was also a record high of 37,784 self-harm incidents and 25,049 assault incidents during the same period.
A Prison Service spokesman said: “Every death in custody is a tragedy and we are redoubling our efforts to make prisons safe.
“Funding for prison safety has also been increased, with a new suicide and self-harm reduction project to address self-inflicted deaths and self-harm.
“We have also increased support for vulnerable offenders – especially during the first 24 hours in custody – and invested more in mental health awareness training for prison officers.”