Update June 2012 >>> Since writing this article, I have been informed that the figures of people detained in police custody in my force for 2011/12 were just twenty-three … that means over 97% of people detained are going to a healthcare facility. Greater than my wildest imaginations, frankly.
Like many forces and most public sector organisations, my force is redesigning how we deliver police services over the next few years. There is obvious focus at the moment on budgets, costs and cuts; as well as a whole world of politics upon which I am going to focus not one jot except to say this: we all know how the public sector is looking to doing more with less, or at least achieving the same with less. I’ll come back to this at the end.
My force have had various requests over the last year or so from individuals and organisations regarding the operation of the Mental Health Act involving the police. Last week, you may have seen a short BBC Newsnight piece concerning deaths in police custody during which Freedom of Information Act figures were mentioned. The BBC sought figures from every force in England and Wales on their operation of s136 Mental Health Act and details of where individuals who were arrested were taken (hospitals or police station). It was nice to send it back saying over 90% of people detained go to hospitals, which puts us in one of the best places in the country.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2005 when I started work on mental health issues, 100% of people detained under the Mental Health Act went to police custody as a place of safety for the want of any other options. This was not without consequence and not without cost – measured in many different ways.
Today I dealt with two other questions from an FoI applicant for information about the ‘costs’ involved in s136 – although they didn’t say whether they meant costs measured in time or money or both!
One could look at police involvement in the operation of various parts of the Mental Health Act in cost terms. In fact, I know forces have done this to establish how they should cut them. They (mis)-read the Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act and said in fairly blunt terms, “We have no obligation to do X or Y or Z, so we won’t because it will save money.” Cue: unexpected consequences both in terms of NHS reaction, public or patient reaction and other unpredicted problems of ‘failure demand’ which meant things took even longer and resulted in operating tensions, complaints and legal actions, etc.. Costs went up.
Equally, Primary Care Trusts have sometimes to declined to ensure resources for Place of Safety provision. Cue: responses from the police attempting to improvise though an inappropriate, resistant system and avoid detention in the cells; tragedies in police custody arising from failure to identify and manage medical risks. Costs went up.
Shouldn’t we just focus on doing the right thing? Healthcare delivered by healthcare professionals, supported by the police where this involves risk, in an environment suitable to the person’s immediate needs?
I found myself many times over the last few years talking about ‘doing the right thing’ to manage medical risks and to treat people properly, as we’d want to be treated. When I did so, I faced suggestion from many that it would drive costs up; NHS staffing things they hadn’t previously staffed, two police officers supporting a patient for hours in an NHS PoS instead of one officer or a custody assistant doing a constant watch in the cell block. Well, even if that were true, wouldn’t it be worth it to know we’d done the right thing?
Average detention time in police cells in my force is around 12hrs; average time in NHS PoS is more around 4hrs. One member of staff for twelve hours or two of them for four. Do that maths and you’re still winning the overall cost argument, aren’t you? But that’s not why you’d do it: it’s the right thing to do.
But having sat with a calculator for just fifteen minutes yesterday, I was struck by something when answering questions about money. There is usually no focus in costing these services on costs resulting from current ‘failure demands‘. Things like, legal actions, which have occured against the NHS and the police arising from s136. I am confident I could show that costs to the public from high profile tragedies nationally – including criminal and civil cases; as well as Coroner’s Inquests and human rights challenges – have been over £100m. Yes: over one hundred million pounds.
But by focussing upon doing the right thing, it is possible to show the following for just one police force detaining 1,000 people are year under the MHA:
- The financial costs to just one police force of doing s136 properly, is £180,000 a year less than if they were to continue doing it badly and it comes at no extra overall cost to the NHS if they think creatively about service re-design for staffing.
- The opportunity costs to a police force of doing it properly is reprented by 25% less time spent engaged in s136 pathways and it comes at no extra cost to the NHS.
- The additional costs to doing it badly – for example measured in terms of ‘failure demands’ (putting things right) or in terms of formally investigating complaints, court costs of all types, etc., are not normally counted but they stand at tens of millions of pounds (for one force).
- By the time one factors in these costs from ‘failure demands’ as well as these operating costs, this equates to over fifty full time police constables.
So we can say this very confidently: to ‘do’ s136 Mental Health Act and Places of Safety correctly is in the interests of patients to get faster assessment, more reflective of their needs in more appropriate environments with better joint managements of risks across the agencies, but that, far less importantly(!), it actually costs less to do it that way, not more.
Pleased to report: this blog was highlighted by John Seddon (Vanguard) in their System’s Thinking monthly newsletter. Extremely grateful for that.