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Mental Health Support: Policing

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Policing and supporting our police officers are both enormously important to me. I have worked with police officers throughout my political career, especially during my 12 years in local government, and every single police officer who serves has my absolute and total respect and thanks for all that they do to keep us safe, often putting themselves in dangerous situations to do so.

I also speak as someone who grew up with policing. My father served for 31 years. As I reflected on the subject of tonight’s debate, it struck me how policing changed so much throughout his career and continues to do so to this day. When he joined the Birmingham City police in 1970, he was issued with the usual tunic and a truncheon and sent out on patrol. By the time he retired from the Metropolitan police in 2001, stab vests had already become the norm and ASPs had replaced truncheons. As I joined officers in Aylesbury Vale a few Fridays ago to see first hand their day-to-day operations, it struck me how it had become necessary for so many to carry a taser.

The inspiration for this Adjournment debate came from my constituent Sam Smith—for the record, he is not a relative—who came to my surgery with a number of very well researched points about mental health support in policing, which I shall put to the House and my hon. Friend the Minister in the hope that they will be addressed.

To set the scene, my constituent is an ex-police officer who served for three years on the frontline. Unfortunately he had to leave service a year ago because of struggles with his mental health caused by the trauma experienced in policing. He reports that throughout his short policing career very little support was offered for his mental health and he points to a strong stigma around mental wellbeing in general. It came as a surprise to him when he found out from a survey of nearly 17,000 serving officers and operational staff last autumn—conducted by the University of Cambridge and funded by the charity Police Care UK, and entitled “The Job & The Life”—that 90% of police workers had been exposed to trauma, and almost one in five suffers with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who work in law enforcement are almost five times more likely to develop PTSD than the general UK population.

To give a flavour of what our police officers face on a daily basis, the British Transport police were in touch with me this week. The nature of BTP’s work means that their officers regularly deal with the most traumatic of incidents. For example, tragically about 300 people take their own lives on the railway each year and British Transport police officers attend and manage all of those incidents. Some 40% of BTP staff are impacted by one of these incidents every year and over 1,000 staff are impacted by two or more.

Going back to the survey, among the 80% without clinical levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, half reported overall fatigue, anxiety and trouble sleeping. It is concerning that this information is not regularly provided to officers during their initial training, so that they can be aware of the dangers of the job for their mental health. If someone tried to join the police while suffering from PTSD it is unlikely they would be considered medically fit, so it is worrying that we are allowing so many officers to struggle with their mental health and go through trauma while being responsible for the safety of members of the public. Another sad statistic from the Office for National Statistics data is that approximately one officer every two weeks is taking their own life. The true number and risk is hard to quantify, as not all police forces in the UK are separately recording this data.

After experiencing the inadequate support currently available for officer mental health, my constituent decided to start a campaign for change. Through his experiences he felt that there was a lack of prevention and support for resilience to help avoid mental health issues and he believes that his force at the time concentrated on aftercare, which he informs me is poorly advertised and rarely used. Officers’ experiences are unique to the force they are serving in, so the level of care that officers receive comes down to individual forces. That position is backed up by Gill Scott-Moore, the chief executive of Police Care UK, who said:

“There is no comprehensive strategy to tackle the issue of mental health in policing, and that has to change.”

Indeed, there is no Government mandate or minimum standard for forces’ management of trauma exposure or mental health, and no requirement for anything to improve. This has led to a mix of positive and negative experiences for officers struggling with mental health.

I apologise for missing the start of this very important debate. As a former police officer myself, I am aware of this issue and the additional burden that police officers face in supporting people who also have their own mental health challenges. One constituent contacted me to say that they had tried to take their own life but had been stopped by police officers. The officers said that they wished they could do more, but that they were not trained in mental health. Indeed, today Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr, at a Scottish Police Authority board meeting, said that the

“level of demand has outstripped capacity”

and Police Scotland’s

“professional ability to deal with”

those with mental health issues. The hon. Gentleman is talking so compassionately about the experience of police officers. Does he agree that we need to make sure that police officers have mental health support to give to other people?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree with her, particularly on her point about training. I will come on to that later on in my speech.

My constituent found in his research that, although it is a near costless process, not all forces are recording tragic police suicides separately, so they cannot feed in to the work we must do to prevent those suicides taking place. The research by the charity Police Care UK and the University of Cambridge into police trauma and mental health made headline news in May last year. The research highlights areas in which police officers are not given adequate opportunity to look after their own mental health or that of others. For example, 93% of officers who reported a psychological issue as a result of work said that they would still go to work as usual, and 73% of those with possible or probable PTSD have not been diagnosed and may not even know that they have it. This represents a huge human cost to police officers’ wellbeing, and the implications for performance and public safety do not bear thinking about. With figures like these, I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that change is required.

For a long time now, mental health has come second to physical health. The statistics show that mental illness is as dangerous to a police officer’s health as physical injury, and we therefore need to give mental health the same attention that physical health has received for so many years. The College of Policing is working on creating a national curriculum for police safety training. This is the training that focuses on the physical side of policing. Police safety training was reviewed after the tragic death of PC Harper last year, and it was unanimously agreed by all chief constables that the training should be consistent across forces, as there were major discrepancies in the quality of training across the board. I put it to the House that mental health and trauma resilience should feature as a key component to that officer safety training.

By creating a new, pragmatic, national approach, the Home Office could guarantee that every force would meet the agreed and expected standard to best protect our officers. Initiatives such as the national wellbeing service are very welcome. However, Police Care UK’s research with the University of Cambridge illustrates that there is an over-reliance on generic NHS services. As long as police officers and staff are on NHS waiting lists, the existing national approach can hope to have only limited success. Challenges such as these have already been recognised by the NHS, which has set up its own specialist service to support the mental health of its doctors through practitioner health programmes. There needs to be an equivalent for our police.

My constituent’s campaign therefore proposes that the same is needed for mental health in the police force, and that a 360° approach to mental health needs to be adopted. This would include prevention through education, maintained resiliency and aftercare, so that no matter what stage someone was at in their policing career, they would be better protected from the overwhelmingly high chances of being a victim. In particular, mental health prevention and education on officers’ personal welfare are widely missed, and training currently focuses only on dealing with mental health in the community. The fully encompassing approach should also increase awareness of the existing aftercare support that is currently being underused.

This consistent and fair approach would also help to break the long-standing stigma around mental health in policing. The benefits of this would go far beyond protecting those who serve; it would mean that police officers were able to carry out their duty more safely and be at less risk from finding themselves in situations where they were being investigated, for example, for misconduct. It would reduce long-term sickness and better retain experienced police officers who would otherwise have their careers cut short. While this is not about money, the long-term financial savings would outweigh the short-term spending required to implement the new approach.

The fear is that, without Government intervention and guidance, the 43 individual forces will continue to go off in different directions, and someone’s mental wellbeing should not be put down to the luck of which police force they are located in. We are showing a lack of equality not only in the way we view mental health but across the wider policing family. The police covenant offers the perfect opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister to listen to these concerns and to instigate simple, specific and vital changes to managing police mental health across the UK, such as monitoring PTSD prevalence and suicide rates. Providing the police with a full support network for both physical and mental health is the very least we can do.

It is clear that no force would send an officer to a stabbing without a stab-proof vest, so why do we as a country continue to send them into repeated trauma without the knowledge of how to safely manage their own mental health? Unlike physical health, mental health is too often invisible, but it is there and we cannot ignore it. Mental illness affects not just the person suffering; it can destroy entire families and cause great heartache for years to come. The question for my hon. Friend is this: will she support and help implement a change nationally to provide equal standards of mental health welfare, training, support and access to therapy for every officer that serves for Queen and country no matter what force they are in?

Crucially, any initiatives introduced need to make provision for addressing the backlog of cases that need support. Police Care UK has seen a fivefold increase in demand for therapy over the past 12 months alone. Will my hon. Friend the Minister back this campaign? Will she make it mandatory that all police forces in the United Kingdom show consistency and record those PTSD prevalence rates and those sad tragic suicides? As Dr Jessica Miller of the University of Cambridge says:

“A stiff upper lip attitude will not work in contemporary policing. Without decent interventions and monitoring for trauma impact and a national conversation involving the Home Office and the Department of Health, the alarming levels of PTSD our study has uncovered will stay the same.”

Every single day, police officers across the country face risks—dangerous risks—defending our communities. I was proud to stand on a manifesto that committed to backing our police by equipping officers with the powers and tools that they need to protect us, including Tasers and body cameras. It is now time that we increased steps to look after their mental health, too.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) on securing this debate on this important subject, but may I go further than that and thank him for bringing his experiences as the proud son of a police officer into the Chamber and indeed thank his father for his 31 years of public service? Those experiences and that service will help, I am sure, to influence and inform the debates that we will have in the future on the vital topic of police safety and wellbeing, particularly with the police covenant galloping towards us, more of which I will speak about in a moment.

I also thank my hon. Friend’s constituent, Sam Smith, who has had the courage to be frank about his personal circumstances and has used those experiences to inform a body of work that he has been able to take to my hon. Friend, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend for taking this opportunity to put them before the House.

Our brave police officers do an extraordinary job in the most difficult circumstances, keeping us safe day in, day out. The job of a police officer can be very, very tough. Many of them face more danger in a single day than we may see in months, years or indeed a lifetime. We have only to look at the tragic deaths of Thames Valley officer PC Andrew Harper, and Sergeant Matt Ratana of the Met, as examples of where officers have made the ultimate sacrifice. Their extraordinary bravery will not be forgotten.

Our police continue to serve our country courageously. Their commitment to protecting and supporting their communities has shone through in the role that they have played in the response to the pandemic. Across the policing family, those who go to work to keep the country safe are truly the best of us. It is therefore absolutely right that we ensure that they are supported every step of the way.

Of course the work of the police involves dealing with traumatic incidents and helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. This is not a job that they can leave at the office. Indeed, I would not call it a job; I would call it a vocation. The pressures of the role can leave their mark on a person’s personal and family life as well. As I say, I very much bear in mind the family experiences of a serving officer as well. I know from my portfolio about the effect of working on, for example, a case involving the sexual exploitation and abuse of children; or the impact on an officer arriving at the scene of a domestic homicide; or even, as we have seen in recent weeks, the impact on an officer arriving at a terrorist incident and having to run towards that danger, not knowing what they may face. Those are extraordinary experiences, which leave terrible marks on police officers who have to deal with them.

It is absolutely right that we ensure that the mental health and wellbeing of our police is a priority, which is why this Government have invested £7.5 million in a new national police wellbeing service. The service is available to every officer in England and Wales; policing is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, so they are responsible for their arrangements. The service was built up following two years of development and piloting, and was launched in April 2019. It provides evidence-based guidance, advice, tools and resources that can be accessed by forces, and individual officers and staff. There is an emphasis on prevention and on identifying mental health issues early so that officers and staff can get help before a problem takes hold.

The service offers a wide range of support and guidance, including an outreach service of bespoke wellbeing vans that are being deployed to police stations, providing physical, psychological and financial health checks for officers and staff. It also includes psychological risk management to clarify potential problems and identify suitable interventions such as counselling, further referral, or, in some cases, signposting to information, advice or training. There is also trauma and post-incident management to help officers and staff who have dealt with traumatic incidents, considering how individual officers and people may respond differently.

As a police officer, I remember paying my monthly subs to the national police treatment centre in Auchterarder and the one in Harrogate as well. I would be interested to know the Minister’s thoughts on the work of those centres, and how they complement the covenant that she is describing.

I am about to come to the covenant, but I am just setting out the wellbeing service. It has been created very much with the police to ensure that we address the issues that they face, but we do not for a moment pretend that we have completed the job. We are conscious that this is a journey of progress and we want to do more. In summary, the service is designed to ensure that support is available for police before, during and after a traumatic incident, but we want to go even further to ensure that our police get the support and protection they need. A crucial strand of that is the police covenant, which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has mentioned. We are working at pace to introduce the covenant in legislation, and are committed to ensuring that it has a meaningful impact on those working within or retired from policing roles, whether paid or as a volunteer.

The covenant marks an important moment for the country to recognise the policing family’s huge contribution to our society. We expect to establish a robust governance structure in the coming months to drive progress, and policing partners have already been involved in these discussions. The covenant will be enshrined in law, and the Home Secretary will have a duty to report annually on progress. This legislation will be introduced in Parliament later this Session. Our focus will be on health and wellbeing, physical protection and support for families, and we are in no doubt that we must focus on mental health support, building on the work already done by the national police wellbeing service.

To support that, we must all ensure that occupational health standards are embedded consistently within forces, which is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has made. The national police wellbeing service has been working hard to drive that, but we have to make sure that forces have the right people, who make the right investments and ensure the highest quality standards in this area, and we intend for that to be a key priority under the remit of the police covenant. All of that work provides a great opportunity for us to make a difference to the lives of those working in policing and their families, and we will continue to work closely with policing partners to ensure that the change makes a real difference to police officers and families.

As I have said, our police make enormous sacrifices to protect us in hugely challenging circumstances, and they deserve our respect and our support, so it is utterly shameful to see that some individuals think it is acceptable to attack them. That can not only cause physical injuries, but serious psychological impacts. We have been completely clear that we will not stand for the police enduring violence and abuse while doing their critical work.

We are pleased to see that the review into officer and staff safety conducted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council has included as one of its recommendations that chief constables should implement the seven-point plan developed by Hampshire constabulary. It sets out what officers and staff should expect from their force if they have been a victim of an assault. It is vital that, should these awful incidents happen, police officers and staff are provided with the right care to help prevent a lasting impact on their health and wellbeing. We are also clear that those convicted of such assaults should face the full force of law, which is why we have announced our intention to legislate to double the maximum penalty for assaults on emergency workers from 12 months to two years. We will continue to work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that assaults on police officers and firefighters are handled with appropriate severity across the criminal justice system.

In conclusion, our police are among the most selfless and courageous members of our society. They run towards danger to protect the public. They put their lives on the line every day. They perform their duties with skill and professionalism, all in the name of keeping our communities safe. In recognition of all that they do, it is our responsibility to make sure they get every possible support, and I hope I have been able to demonstrate to my hon. Friend and to colleagues across the House how seriously the Government take our responsibility to support our police, and the steps that we intend to take to do even more.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

Below is the list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy.