Skip to main content

Mental Health Units: Police Response

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the use of force by police officers when responding to emergency calls from mental health units.

My Lords, there is ongoing work to ensure that any operational police decisions on the use of force in a mental health setting are necessary and proportionate. This includes the development of a new protocol on police attendance, national collection from 2017 to 2018 of police data on any force used and a request to local areas to scrutinise the use of any Taser in a mental health setting.

I thank the Minister for that response. However, she will know that a recent Independent Police Complaints Commission report stated that people suffering from a mental illness are four times more likely to die after police use of force against them than other individuals. Will the Government look at the possibility that better training for police officers in how to deal with people suffering from a mental health illness might alleviate the need for them ever to use Tasers because they might understand better how to deal with the situation?

Seven people with mental health concerns died in police custody in 2015-16 out of 14 deaths in total. That of course is still too many. The number of people with mental health problems in police custody has significantly come down since the Government decreed that nobody with a mental health problem should be held in a police cell but should be taken to a place of safety in every situation where that is possible, and never for children. On the second part of her question, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: training is essential for police officers, not just in combating crime but in knowing the symptoms of somebody with mental health problems.

I declare my interest as chair of the National Mental Capacity Forum. Do the Government agree that in situations in the community where others are at risk because somebody is becoming very violent, it is appropriate to call the police and inappropriate to expect ambulance and other staff to attempt to use any form of restraint? The police are trained and are therefore safer than people using restraint who are not appropriately trained. The College of Policing is actively addressing this issue at the moment through its revised training guidelines.

The noble Baroness is right—restraint is the last possible option. It is certainly not for ambulance staff to deal with someone who is extremely violent and a danger to both themselves and others. So, yes, in rare circumstances the use of Taser will be necessary.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Is not one of the fundamental problems that there is a lack of appropriate levels of staffing in many mental health units and a lack of appropriate levels of community mental health services on whom the police can call under such circumstances? What representations has the Home Office made to its colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that those gaps in service provision are being addressed?

The noble Lord is right to raise this issue. The Government recognise the need to invest in places of safety and £15 million has been allocated to 88 projects in England to improve provision for those in mental health crises, including increasing places of safety.

Will the Minister define what she means by the last possible option? What are the Government doing to develop a humane alternative to the use of Tasers in psychiatric wards?

I am happy to tell the noble Baroness what I mean by “last possible option”. Something like Taser would be used only when all other methods of restraint are deemed not appropriate or to have failed, and where distance is required between the police and the person who is being extremely violent. That is what I mean by the last option. As to never using it, we can never say that it will not be used because the alternatives—I talked about this with the noble Baroness the other day—are to use more extreme methods of restraint, and we would not want that.

In the figures in the IPCC investigation, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, referred, of 191 cases of serious incidents, one in five people were known to have mental health concerns. They were more likely to be restrained and experience multiple uses of force, and were four times more likely to die after force had been used than those not known to be mentally ill. Is not the reality that this year is the third year in a row that the Government have failed to meet their promise that mental health funding in local areas would increase? Is not the reality that until the Government seek to address this problem we will not get at the heart of the issue of the continuing extent to which the police are called out in situations involving people with mental health issues?

My Lords, I dispute the noble Lord’s assertion about funding because the Government have committed to investing an additional £1 billion into mental health services by 2020 to ensure improved mental health support in the community and for people in accident and emergency, as well as crisis response provision and treatment for both adults and children.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the problem behind this Question is not one for the police? This is a matter for the health service, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said. It cannot be the case that police officers are called to actually come into mental health units unless there has been a major failure of care by the health service. This is blaming the people who have to clear up the mess rather than dealing with the problem itself.

My Lords, the noble Lord and I agree on one level because if someone has a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis, that is a health issue. However, if someone demonstrates behaviour that is either a danger to themselves or to others, including the staff in mental health settings, there may be no other option. Of course these situations are rare, but as I say there may be no other option than for police restraint to be used.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the Government’s intention to put an additional £1 billion into mental health services between now and, I think she said, 2020. Can she say when that money is going to be delivered? If, as I suspect, it is what might be called back loaded, what is to happen in the meantime?

I think that the noble Baroness is being slightly cynical, but I will write to her with a breakdown of when the funding might be expected to be released.