The other four officers stood on tip-toes waiting to catch the young woman on each occasion when she looked as if she was going to dive through the window. Fortunately, they managed to stop any action. In the meantime, contact was made with St George’s Hospital’s psychiatric unit to seek urgent hospital psychiatric assistance. After some considerable time, the appropriate psychiatric individual arrived with an ambulance and crew. This immediately inspired further alarm, rejection and, ultimately, a huge struggle. In due course, a sad young lady was transported to the hospital as the designated place of safety, and we had prevented the suicide.
The whole pantomime had occupied five officers and three NHS staff, and took about four hours to sort out. It was obvious from the very beginning that the police themselves could have taken care of the young lady quickly, as indeed they did after instruction from the NHS staff. Immediate action by the police would have taken the lady into care quickly, thus reducing the continuing risk over those four hours, and saving the police and NHS staff a large number of man hours. Under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, the police would have been able to act promptly if this pantomime had taken place in a public place. However, the incident took place at the young lady’s mother’s home. That was deemed, correctly, to be a private place, which meant that no direct police action was legally possible. I have had discussions with officers in the Met, and I have found that this was not an unusual case.
A more tragic case was the death of Martin Middleton in 2010. He was taken to a Leeds police station by officers who had visited him at home, having been made aware, and then seeing for themselves, that Mr Middleton was making serious preparations for committing suicide. The officers incorrectly believed that they could arrest Mr Middleton and take him from his home under section 136. When they arrived at the police station, the custody sergeant refused to detain Mr Middleton as the arrest had taken place in his home. The officers were therefore required by the custody sergeant to return Mr Middleton to a relative’s home, hoping that that was some form of safety. Sadly, Mr Middleton still managed to hang himself there.
At the inquest, the coroner had no hesitation in agreeing with Professor Keith Rix, who was called to give expert evidence, that Mr Middleton fell into a category of mentally disordered persons for whom there is no provision under the 1983 Act. Subsequent to raising the issue, I have heard from many frontline police officers, including those who have campaigned on the issue, and I have also had extensive conversations with Professor Keith Rix, who is an academic psychiatrist and an expert in this area. I am reliably informed that the Garda in the Republic of Ireland have a clear operational advantage over our police because, under section 12 of the Irish Mental Health Act 2001, they can act promptly, even in a private residence.
As the all-seeing Minister will be aware, over the 10 years between 1997 and 2007, admissions to hospital as a place of safety went up from 2,237 to 7,035—those are the latest figures that I have been able to get. The Minister is quick with arithmetic, so she will be able to note that that is a threefold increase. The difficulty facing the police is that the powers on which they can act are limited to persons found by the police in a public place. There is ample anecdotal—and perhaps stronger—evidence that the police in desperation sometimes persuade a person to leave their home, or contrive to remove them to a public place so that they can use the section 136 powers of arrest. In fact, one London-based social services authority’s audited figures estimated that 30% of section 136 arrests were recorded as having been made at or just outside the detainee’s home. The police do that in sheer desperation to save the individual’s life, which would be lost unless they acted. Put bluntly, a tiny adjustment to the legislation would allow the police to act in a private home, as they can in a public place. That would save an enormous amount of time and, potentially, a considerable number of lives.
In my discussions about this, it has been suggested that the police already have sufficient powers—they do not. The second argument is that an amendment would extend the right of the police to enter private properties—yes, it would. There are many legal reasons for the police to enter a private property; perhaps the most obvious and linked one is that if the mentally ill person was threatening, or in the process of murdering, somebody in that private place, rather than killing themselves, the police could act immediately.
There is a simple solution to this: amend section 136 by simply removing the words
“in a place to which the public have access”.
When I raised this issue in the Adjournment debate about a year ago, the Minister’s predecessor gave a clear indication that change was being considered. He gave me a commitment that if the Government could not get this right using the measures they were considering, an amendment to section 136 might be exactly what was required.