On Monday in the House of Commons, questions to the Home Office occupied some of the afternoon. Mental health questions came up and I’ve re-produced two brief exchanges from Hansard for that day. The purpose of doing so is to document the lack of specific understanding that exists on these topics. The question and the Government response is incoherent – none of the three responses below actually address the public policy question implied by the preceeding question, but the question is poorly framed. I’ll let you read the exchange and will then outline some of the issues –
Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
How many people have been unlawfully detained for more than 24 hours while awaiting a mental health assessment in each of the last three years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Victoria Atkins).
Provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 ban the use of police cells as places of safety for under-18s, restrict their use for adults and reduce the maximum period of detention to 24 hours. Information on the length of time for which people are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 pending an assessment is not held by the Home Office, but we are seeking to ascertain the scale and nature of this issue and we are reviewing the available information that we were provided with last month by the College of Policing.
Preet Kaur Gill
Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police have just 24 hours to hold someone with a mental illness. The College of Policing shared with the BBC last December the fact that 264 people were held for longer than this, including a mentally ill child who was held for five days. Is the Home Secretary aware of this report, and what steps have been taken to remedy the situation?
Very much so, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. We know that there is an issue in this area, and she will be pleased to know that her constabulary—the West Midlands—in fact does very well on this. It did not use police cells at all for such detentions last year; indeed, since 2013 it has used them on only 14 occasions. Of course, however, any such occasion is one occasion too many. She will I am sure join me in being pleased that the use of police stations as places of safety nearly halved last year, but we need to do more.
Mike Wood (Dudley South)
Does the Minister agree that a police cell or a police station is not a suitable place for an innocent person suffering from mental health problems, and will she support initiatives such as the mental health triage projects in the West Midlands to make sure that people with mental health problems get the medical support they need when they need it?
Very much so. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that health places were used as places of safety in more than 26,000 cases last year, compared with 1,029 cases of using cells, but we are determined to try to sort this out.
For all the use it was, the minister may as well just have said ‘condition orange’ to all three questions because her replies are answers to different questions, that simply weren’t asked.
- Firstly, how many times were people unlawfully detained? – the answer to that question is a number. It either happened zero times, or ten times or a thousands times, etc. We need an integer. In fairness to the Minister, we don’t accurately know because police forces don’t know this figure accurately. But the point here is, no matter how few or how many people are taken to police custody as a Place of Safety under the Mental Health Act 1983, such people are NOT people detained unlawfully for more than 24hrs – condition orange.
- Secondly, the College of Policing data referred to and quoted by the BBC came from some work I did in 2016 – it related to people brought in to custody under arrest for offences who are then subsequently ‘sectioned’ and diverted from the justice system, albeit after many days in some cases. The ‘zero’ figure being referred to is the number of people detained by West Midlands Police under s136 MHA which is nothing whatsoever to do with how many criminal suspects were diverted from arrest under the MHA – “How many people were unlawfully held?” – condition orange.
- Finally, street triage isn’t an inherent way to reduce the use of police custody for ‘innocent’ people suffering mental health problems. Some forces had managed to eradicate the use of custody or reduce it to truly exceptional levels before street triage was ever invented and in some areas where they had street triage, use of s136 (and its potential to lead to custody) continued to rise. “We don’t want vulnerable people with mental health problems in custody unless they’re accused of offending so how shall we do it?!” – condition orange.
(Interesting use of the word “innocent”, there – because all people under arrest are innocent until they’re proven guilty, even where they are arrested for murder, so ‘innocent’ means literally everybody.)
It doesn’t matter how few people are taken to police stations under the MHA as a Place of Safety, there will continue to be a large number of people taken to custody under arrest – and that is partly the delivery result of the Government’s decision to re-affirm that the police service in the UK should not have powers that almost all other police services have got: a s136 type power in private premises. So where offending behaviours are involved and where risks of further harm exists, officers who cannot lawfully use s136 MHA will resort to other lawful powers to keep people safe – that is only human instinct kicking. As a consequence, we need to understand the different dynamics that exist for the MHA-Place of Safety cohort (who are encountered in places which are not dwellings) versus how things work differently where people are arrested for offences and still taken to custody.
As Hansard shows, we obviously don’t know the difference.
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Since this blog began, the law of England and Wales, including the Codes of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983 have been updated, several times. Always check the date of publication, displayed below; and cross-reference to current legislation and guidance when using this material as a reference guide.