Government sets out £15m plan to cut use of police cells for mental health patients

Policing and crime bill will also ban the use of police cells for mentally unwell children and cut detention time limits

The government will invest up to £15m and introduce new laws in a bid to ‘guarantee’ mental health patients will no longer be held in police cells due to problems accessing NHS units.

Last year more than 4,000 people were held in police custody after having been detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. The Act gives police the power to detain people to a place of safety. This should be an NHS unit or other health setting but problems with the availability and staffing of place of safety units has often left police officers with no option but to detain people to police cells.

In a speech to the Police Federation, Home Secretary Theresa May said the government would provide the “beds and funding needed” to stop the use of police cells.

“This will mean up to £15 million of new funding to deliver health-based places of safety in England and a guarantee from this government that no person with mental health problems will be detained by the police due to the lack of a suitable alternative,” she said.

“Because the right place for a person suffering a mental health crisis is a bed, not a police cell. And the right people to look after them are medically trained professionals, not police officers.”

Policing and sentencing bill

May also confirmed that a new policing and sentencing bill will include legislation to ban the use of police cells to detain children with mental health issues. The bill, which is to be included in next week’s Queen’s speech, will also ensure police cells are only used as a place of safety for adults if a person’s behaviour is so extreme they can’t otherwise be safely managed. The length of time a person can be detained under section 135 or 136 will also be reduced from 72 hours with the most likely proposal being to cut it to 24 hours.

Steve Chamberlain, chair of The College of Social Work’s Approved Mental Health Professionals network, welcomed moves to cut use of police cells but warned attention also had to be given to why more people were ending up in crisis.

“The last thing anyone needs to be in a police cell when they’re unwell and haven’t committed a crime and it is positive to hear about resources being made available to stop that happening,” he said.

“But we also need to think about the rest of the system and why people are getting into crisis and into contact with the police in the first place. Too often that’s happening because the rest of the system is in breakdown and people aren’t getting the earlier support they need. We need to consider the cause, not just treat the symptom.”

More details needed

Details of how the place of safety funding will have to be used or how it will be allocated have yet to be revealed.

In the mid-2000s a government capital funding programme boosted the number of place of safety units but a key issue with the scheme was that funding was not always in place to ensure that the facilities were fully staffed after being built. Even with the additional capacity from the capital investment scheme, it was only in 2014 that every county had access to a health-based place of safety.

A leading expert on mental health policing has also sounded caution over the proposal to allow the use of police cells as a place of safety for adults with ‘extreme’ behaviour.

Writing on his Mental Health Cop blog, Inspector Michael Brown said it was crucial to identify what the ‘extreme’ behaviour exceptions would mean in practice. Brown pointed to the fact that several high profile mental health deaths have involved decisions to use custody that were “potentially in disregard of the fact that acutely disturbed behaviour can be symptomatic of underlying conditions and in itself be a medical emergency.”

“We need to be very, very careful that we don’t encourage the kinds of response by police officers that have been massively criticised, including in the courts, after previous untoward events,” he wrote.

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