Adjournment Debate: Detention under Mental Health Act

14th July 2016

Mike Penning responds to an adjournment debate calling for an amendment to the Mental Health Act to allow police access to a private dwelling when somebody is in need of mental health care.

Far be it for me to ever contradict you, Mr Speaker, but I lost crime some time ago and now have fire. The title you gave me is correct, except that I now have no crime, but lots of fire.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that it is a pleasure to respond to this debate. We have met to discuss his concerns before. I have received delegations on the subject and it was discussed extensively during the Committee stage of the Policing and Crime Bill.

To be fair, my hon. Friend does highlight an issue, and I am not going to run away from that. He is absolutely right to say that there are concerns about extending powers into a place of safety that is deemed to be someone’s abode. I have been on patrol with the police when they have encountered very similar situations to the first case that he mentioned. I have also heard people say, long before I got this position, “If only we could this person outside their home, we could help them under the existing legislation.”

I am sure that all custody sergeants, who do a fantastic job, are as diligent as the one who my hon. Friend has met. I once heard a custody sergeant say that section 136 would not be appropriate when a person was in a public place. I do not think that that is right, either, but police officers are not mental health experts. One of the problems with section 136 is that it is specifically designed as a last resort when all other measures to help an individual have been exhausted. I will touch on other matters relating to the expertise that police officers do not always have, including the street triage initiative and resources for custody suites, and, importantly, the situation outwith officers.

Before we consider changing section 136, we need to ask whether it is being used correctly. We are concerned about the number of section 136 orders that are being used, and the data that I asked for show that forces in some parts of the country almost never use section 136, while others use it extensively.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast those statistics with the suicide statistics. By law, anyone arrested under section 136 must be seen within 72 hours by a psychiatrist or a medical practitioner with psychiatric training, which represents an enormous safeguard.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will break down the analysis for information not just on suicides, but on criminal assaults, which are often carried out on loved ones. When I was out on patrol with the Metropolitan police in Camden, we went to what the neighbours described as a “domestic situation”; in other words, someone had allegedly been assaulted. When we arrived at and eventually got into the flat, the one thing that the person who had been assaulted desperately did not want was for their loved one to be arrested and taken to a prison cell, because they were ill. They were ill in a similar way to someone who had broken their leg or who had a medical illness. They were ill and they needed to go to a suitable place of safety.

All too often over the years, that person would have been arrested and ended up in a police cell. If they were not subject to section 136, they would not necessarily have the safeguard of being seen by a medical or psychiatric specialist. That is one of the reasons why the amount of time that someone with a mental illness can be kept in a police cell is massively restricted by legislation.

I would argue that this is a matter not just for the police, but for social services and the NHS in particular. It is not for a police officer to diagnose instantly whether someone having a mental health episode is drunk, has taken illegal drugs, or has had their medication go wrong. I may not be the Minister with responsibility for the police as the reshuffle goes on, but at the moment they are my police officers in England and Wales, and very often they have to make split-second decisions. However, I am desperate to make sure that they are not put in the difficult position of being the first port of stoppage rather than being, as they should be, the last resort for those in desperate need.

When I was fireman, I regularly attended incidents with the local police force. At about a quarter to five on a Friday, social services would phone the police and fire stations to say that they were going home for the weekend, but they had not seen Mary or Jonny—vulnerable people—during the week, so could we make sure that they were okay. Sometimes we had to break into the premises. I argued then and I argue now that that is not the role of the emergency services, and it is certainly not the role of the police. However, that has become the norm in all our constituencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley will be pleased to know that an inter-ministerial group is looking at this. When I was disabilities Minister, I sat on the group and argued my point about not just people with mental illnesses, but people with learning difficulties. The two are often confused in this area, because people with learning difficulties can also become very confused as we desperately try to look after them.

If someone has a mental illness, the place of safety that we take them to is not a police cell. We do exactly what it says on the tin and take them to a place of safety, which means a medical setting provided by the NHS or social services.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) in everything that he is trying to do. Does the Minister agree that the time limit in the safeguards in section 136, which require an examination by a registered medical practitioner or an interview by an approved medical health professional within 72 hours, could be reduced to perhaps 12 hours? That would mean that the person in question would get more immediate help.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly what will happen under the Policing and Crime Bill. The police will not be able to hold a person in a police cell for the length of time that they previously could while waiting for that medical examination to take place. However, to be honest, I think we can all agree that 12 hours is too long. Would we find it acceptable if someone with a broken leg had to wait in A&E for 72 hours? My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley is a qualified dentist. Would someone wait 72 hours if they had a huge abscess in their mouth that needed urgent treatment? Why is mental health treated so differently from other illnesses? That is something that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has been working on extensively, although sadly he has decided to return to the Back Benches. When the coalition was in power, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) accepted that the NHS was letting these people down, and that the men and women in our police forces were having to pick up the mess by dealing with those in desperate situations. That really is not the role of a police force.

Unless the Government come together to deal with this, my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley is right to be concerned about sections 136 and 135. I hope that he will take up my offer of our working together. I am sorry that I did not manage to be with him to meet the professor, although we did bump into him. If the concerns cannot be dealt with in the way that my officials and the three Departments that handle this suggest that they can, we will absolutely need to amend section 136, but let us first try to get to the right place. This will sound critical of other Departments, but I do not want the police to be seen, yet again, to be picking up something that another Department needs to address. That is what has happened over the years.

When I have said that we should restrict the length of time for which these very vulnerable people can be held in a police cell, one argument that has been put to me is: where will they go? How many specialist A&E facilities and places of safety are there, besides the cells in the local prison? The answer is that provision has to be made to ensure that the cells are not the first port of call.

To conclude, it is absolutely right that this issue has been brought to the House, although I am aware of it. I was aware of it before I took on my portfolio and, to be fair, even before I came into the House, because my mother was a mental health nurse for more than 40 years. We are in a much better position today than we have been in the past, and we have a better understanding of mental health and learning difficulties—[Interruption.] The phone in my pocket is buzzing; it may well be someone trying to get hold of me urgently.

It is important that we work together. I give my hon. Friend a commitment that if we cannot get this right using the measures that we are working on, an amendment to section 136 might be exactly what we need.