During last year’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, I raised concerns about 17 year-olds taken into custody by the police and treated as adults rather than children. I highlighted the case of Joe Lawton, who in 2012 took his own life. His father found him dead with a police charge sheet at his feet. Two days earlier, Joe had been held in a police cell overnight on suspicion of drink-driving. Joe was 17. I also spoke of 17 year-old Edward Thornber, who in 2011 was caught with 50p worth of cannabis. Distraught at the thought of life with a criminal record, he hanged himself. Those two children were robbed of their future, and their families robbed of sharing it and seeing their children reach adulthood.
Those cases, along with the legal challenge mounted by 17 year-old Hughes Cousins-Chang, who was kept in custody for 12 hours, during which he underwent the ordeal of a strip search before being released without charge, led to the Home Secretary changing the PACE Code C, which I warmly welcomed, but I warned of two issues: first, the lack of additional resources going to local government to deal with this change, especially given that around 75,000 17 year-olds are taken into police custody every year; and, secondly, anomalies that remained, including under Section 65, where although an intimate search on a 16 year-old in relation to a suspected drugs offence requires both individual and parental consent, such body cavity searches can be carried out on a 17 year-old girl without her parents ever knowing. I am pleased to hear that the Home Secretary, Mrs May, heard that Mayday call and has promised to ensure through the policing and criminal justice legislation announced in the gracious Speech that such anomalies will be removed and that 17 year-olds will be treated as children under all the provisions of PACE.
The second Mayday call came from Paul Netherton, assistant chief constable at Devon & Cornwall Police, who in November last year took to Twitter to express his frustration and voice concerns for the welfare of a 16 year-old girl who had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, but with no bed available had spent two days in a cell at Torquay police station. Later, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary highlighted a case in Nottinghamshire where a 16 year-old girl was detained for 52 hours in a central police custody suite before being transferred to a healthcare setting. For the first 44 hours in custody, she went without food or water.
I think that Mrs May has heard that Mayday call, too. At the Police Federation conference this May, she promised to ban the use of police cells as places of safety for under-18s with mental health problems. I understand that the legislation has three other aims: to further reduce the use of police cells in the case of adults, which is good; to reduce the current 72-hour maximum period of detention; and to extend the power to detain under Section 136 to any place other than a private residence. I welcome Mrs May’s aims and look forward to seeing the detail in the Bill.
However, two immediate issues come to mind which I hope Ministers will be able to answer during the passage of the Bill, although it would be helpful if the Minister could shed some light on the matter today. First, will vulnerable people be discharged from custody to the streets if the reduced time is up and no hospital bed or other appropriate place has been found? Could this inadvertently result in families and partners being placed at risk? Secondly, what assurances will there be that any other place is safe and appropriate? I am sure that these and other issues will be debated during the course of the Bill and satisfactory and workable solutions found.
Progress on two Mayday calls has been made. My Mayday call to Mrs May for this year is of equal urgency and severity but for which I have yet to hear any firm proposals from the Government. Every year, hundreds of deaths occur in police custody, prisons and psychiatric hospitals that are later deemed to have been preventable. Last February an excellent report, Preventing Death in Detention of Adults with Mental Health Conditions, was published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The report highlights that between 2010 and 2013, 367 adults with mental health conditions died of non-natural causes while in state detention in police cells and psychiatric wards. Another 295 adults died in prison of non-natural causes, many of whom had mental health conditions. Since 2013 the number has risen considerably. That is well over 650 preventable deaths.
I am sure everyone will agree that each of these deaths is a tragedy. It is a terrible end to a troubled life for those with mental health conditions and a tragedy for the loved ones left behind who have suffered as a result of these deaths. They have to come to terms not only with their terrible loss but with the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones, most importantly where the death could have been avoided but there has been significant failure by the state.
Many agencies are involved in ensuring the safety and care of people with mental health conditions, and all try to do their best within their own constraints, but often co-ordination of policy and service delivery is poor. The Government must do more to ensure that such tragic deaths do not occur in the future. I ask Mrs May to work with her ministerial colleagues, in particular the Lord Chancellor, to see how the safety and care of people with mental health conditions can be improved within the policing and criminal justice system.
On a final note, I wish Mrs May well with her own Mayday call. Your Lordships will remember the one; it was for the Conservative Party to be more compassionate and to lose its label as the nasty party. I humbly suggest that that will not be easy against the backdrop of the proposed £12 billion cuts in the welfare system and the potential abolition of the Human Rights Act. However, if some of the issues that I have highlighted today are appropriately addressed, it may go some way towards helping her to answer her own Mayday call.