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Mental Health: Community Orders

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In light of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health report, The Community Order and the Mental Health Treatment Requirement, what plans they have for monitoring and improving the number of mental health treatment requirements issued with community orders.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice has asked my noble friend Lord Bradley to review all the ways by which offenders with mental health problems are diverted from prison to other services. He will look at barriers to such diversion and has assured me that the mental health treatment element of the community orders will be included in his review, which he hopes to complete this summer.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply but, given that our prisons appear to be stuffed full of people with mental health problems, can she tell us what, in the very short term before the review comes out, the Government are planning to do to discourage the use of prison in favour of some kind of community order for people with mental health problems? Secondly, is she taking seriously the review of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, which has called for investment in alternatives to prison for women offenders, many of whom have mental health problems?

My Lords, work is already under way on the assessment and diversion of those with mental health problems. We are also working on a training programme to improve mental health awareness throughout the criminal justice system. The review by my noble friend Lord Bradley will consider the recommendations of the excellent report by my noble friend Baroness Corston. His review will look at the diversion of women offenders, as well as of children and young people.

My Lords, in 2005, the commission reported, in its biannual report to Parliament, an apparent decline over the last 20 years in the use of mental health community treatment orders. Given that the prison population has around 15,000 people with a serious mental disorder, of whom only 1,000 get transferred to hospital each year, should we not be doing more about what appear to be insufficient court diversion schemes at local level or getting better guidance from the Government about community sentences?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: we could and should be doing more. This is precisely what my noble friend Lord Bradley will be looking at. He will report in the summer and I am confident that he will provide a rigorous report. He will also prepare a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, which will assist us in all our deliberations. I am sure that we will move very swiftly after that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that one of the great problems of the community order with a mental health treatment requirement is that it requires the individual to admit in open court that they have a mental disorder? Could the Government give some thought to how that problem might be addressed to make the take-up of those orders more realistic?

My Lords, the Sainsbury report recognises that this is a problem. I am sure that it has to do with stigma, but clearly this is something that we have to look at. We are told that some offenders—although I cannot believe that they would rather go to prison than have a mental treatment order—would rather have a drug-related order than a mental health order, even if mental health is the root cause of their problems. This is precisely because of the problem of stigma, so we must address it.

My Lords, before treatment can begin, someone with a mental health problem has to be assessed, whether they are in the community or in prison. As I understand it, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, is about diversion, not treatment or assessment. What steps will be taken to improve the assessment on which all this depends? Without it, diversion has no real effect.

My Lords, assessment is absolutely key, as the noble Lord, with his wealth of experience, points out, but it is under the offender health and social care strategy that we are looking to deal with the problem of assessment. Clearly that will be allied to the report carried out by my noble friend. All these matters are interlinked.

My Lords, 28 per cent of community orders with a mental health treatment element have been issued against people from black and minority ethnic communities. Does the noble Baroness agree that that seems disproportionate and seems to indicate a level of bias? Will the review of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, look at bias towards people from black and minority ethnic communities in the criminal justice system?

My Lords, at first sight it would appear to be disproportionate. However, the greatest percentage of these mental health treatment orders are provided in London, where perhaps there is a greater proportion of black and ethnic minority people than in the rest of the country. I am sure that that is something that my noble friend will take into consideration.

My Lords, the offender healthcare strategy report published in 2005 stated that there is,

“a particular dearth of mental health provision for offenders in the community”.

Is that still the case?

My Lords, progress is being made. It is slow, but nobody can question this Government’s commitment to mental health in prisons and in the wider community. It is something that we have to continue working on so that nobody can question the fact that we are doing our utmost to ensure that people with mental health problems in the community, be they offenders or non-offenders, are dealt with properly.