This year, the Mental Health Act 1983 will change. It will be amended (during April, we think) by the Policing and Crime Act 2017* and by the time we sit here early next year, we will know far more about how we’ve coped with it all, but there are plenty of indicators around that we are not at all prepared for or sighted on these changes. So with three months to go ’til this all kicks in, it seems timely to loudly re-bang the drum lest we risk seeing police forces and mental health services having some really difficult conversations at 0337hrs on some Tuesday morning in early May. I’m nervous about all of this, quite frankly. Some areas are struggling under current laws and these amendments only make things far harder for the organisations involved. However, they should make things much better for the public and that, of course, is exactly the point – we’re talking about the liberty of vulnerable people here!
For the avoidance of doubt, the amendments to the Mental Health Act are almost exactly as they were originally introduced to the House of Commons in 2016 – little has changed during the Parliamentary process so it’s fair to point out that we’ve all had a year already to start preparing for this. I have emailed forces with considerably more detail than I am going to put in this post around three months ago, to point out we were six months out and needed to start partnership discussions if we hadn’t already. I know some forces have done exactly this and have written plans they are working towards completing in adequate time. I know others are nowhere on this – sometimes because they’ve tried to raise the point, but haven’t been heard.
Some forces are still detaining hundreds of people a year in police custody as a Place of Safety, so are struggling under the current legal frameworks to achieve what is needed – often because of problems way beyond their control. If this stuff isn’t going to fall flat on its face, it’s about senior managers in health, local authorities and police forces who need to be sighted on things. I would urgently recommend some senior managers in A&E get interested in making the points I’m making in this post, because I strongly suspect that if adequate preparation for the changes are not made, they will be asked more frequently than ever before to support vulnerable people in the care of the police. And we all know what a quiet time A&E are having at the moment!
READY, STEADY, GO!
So set your timers for three months and start counting –
- In three months time, it will be completely unlawful for police officers to take any child to a police station if they are detained under s136 MHA – yet only this week, I know for a fact that the police have had to email chief executives in mental health and acute trusts they work alongside, reminding them of the law and rebutting suggestions that they should just bang kids up in concrete rooms because that’s how the NHS would prefer it.
- In three months time, AMHPs will have just 24hrs in which to coordinate an assessment at a Place of Safety – if they decide it is necessary to make an application for that person’s admission, they will not be able to extend the 24hrs up to 36hrs where that extension is only necessary to identify a hospital with an available bed. Commissioners need to think about bed capacity and their ability to admit over 3,000 people a year within this timescale.
- In three months time, the police will have to ring a mental health professional, where practicable, before deciding to remove someone to a Place of Safety. So we need to know fairly soon, which phone number do the police ring in order to comply with this requirement. It needs to be available 24hrs a day, 7 days a week so even where areas have street triage schemes or liaison and diversion schemes, how will it work when they are not operating?
- In three months time, adults will only be able to be taken to police cells in ‘exceptional circumstances’ – although this is not yet fully defined, the original idea behind this was around the detention of vulnerable people exhibiting ‘behaviours so extreme it cannot otherwise be safely managed’. We need to see whether that remains the definition, but then understand what it means and how we should interpret that in light of existing medical guidelines.
There is more to the impending amendments, but those are the main things that will require planning and partnership discussions. If we haven’t started thinking about this stuff already, we need to be ringing people next week to start talking about it, because in April 2017, this will be the law of the country and failure to comply with it will amount to serious problems we won’t be able to defend.
Wider questions: the Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act was updated in England in 2015 and in Wales in 2016 (it has been in operation only for three months!). We don’t yet know whether those Codes will be updated in 2017 to take account of these changes, so the statutory guidance about how s135/6 operates (chapters 16 of each Code) may become less relevant and less able to be relied upon to hold each other to account. I think it’s vital an updated Code is issued, or at least some transitional equivalent document until such time as the next full revision occurs – they normally occur about every 9yrs or so … next one due around 2024/5-ish!
Oh, and the power itself will be able to be used in private places (except private dwellings) so all other things being equal use of this power will still be destined to rise. You’re welcome.
That’s probably enough to be getting on with! – we’ve got three months and we really can’t say we didn’t know what was coming.
* The Policing and Crime Bill 2016 is yet to receive Royal Assent and become and Act of Parliament; it is anticipated the Queen will give her Assent to the Bill in late January and that the MHA amendments will take effect approximately three months later. These are estimates, subject to confirmation by the Government!
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