Mental Health Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 26th February 2007.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Shadow Minister, Health 9:15 pm, 26th February 2007

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for having tabled the government amendment. It is most welcome and responds to the concerns expressed from around the Chamber in Committee that the law as it stands is inappropriately rigid. A permissive power to move a mentally disordered person from a police cell to another place of safety without necessarily waiting for 72 hours to elapse is a sensible and humane provision. However, perhaps I may bring us back to our Committee debates. I confess to a measure of disappointment that the Government have not felt able to pick up some of the other concerns that I and others raised on that occasion. The amendment in my name grouped here is designed to go somewhat further than Amendment No. 68.

Everyone agrees that a police cell is not a therapeutic environment for someone who may have reached a mental crisis point and may even be suicidal. It is simply, if you like, an expediency. I do not propose to repeat everything that I said in Committee, but putting someone in a police cell when they are in an excited or depressed state of mind is neither good for the person nor fair on the police. We have to recognise that police cells should be available as a last resort, but that is not what the Act says. It places police cells on an equal footing with other places of safety as though all had equal validity. Amendment No. 69A therefore says that a police cell should be used only if it is impracticable to use a therapeutic environment. It also proposes that the period of 72 hours allowed for in the Act for someone with mental health problems to be detained by the police is too long and that it should be reduced to 24 hours.

I still think that the case for making this change is extremely strong, and it is supported fully by the Police Federation and the Independent Police Complaints Commission. In fact, new research from the IPCC shows that the average amount of time that those detained under Section 136 are held in custody is 10 hours. The vast majority of detainees—95 per cent, in fact—leave police custody after 18 hours. That suggests very strongly that making an amendment to the Act to reduce the maximum period of police custody to 24 hours would not represent an unduly onerous requirement. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is only the absence of suitably trained specialist staff to carry out assessments that prevents police in some areas of the country discharging mentally disordered detainees even more quickly. With that thought in mind, the amendment would also put in the Act a duty to ensure that, where someone is detained in a cell, he must be assessed by mental health professionals or transferred to a psychiatric hospital within the shortest possible time.

I realise that the Minister is unlikely to warm to the amendment or at least to the parts of it that do not chime in with Amendment No. 68. In view of the widespread concerns expressed on these issues, both from the police and the mental health community, I ask him whether he will agree once more to take these various points away with him and give them further thought. If he cannot agree to the amendment, it would be extremely welcome if the Minister were able to give a commitment to monitor the use of police cells as places of safety and publish the figures regularly. At least that would help to establish the extent of the problem and the particular areas in which police cells are over-used. At the moment, there are no official national statistics or monitoring of the use of police stations as places of safety.

I understand that the Police Federation does not believe that that would be an unnecessary administrative burden. Most police authorities already have a computer system that allows them to log in when a patient is brought in under Section 136. However, according to the IPCC research, currently there are wide variations in the way in which that data are recorded, which makes it difficult to establish accurate numbers of people detained in police cells.