Adjournment debate on Police Responsibilities in Suicide Attempts
Topping off what was a long day at work, at 10pm, after the Data retention Bill had finished its progress through the Commons I led a short debate on the issue of Police responsibilities after an individual has attempted suicide. The debate touches on a number of complicated and sensitive issues that the government needs to address.
With the government reshuffle earlier in the day, the debate was also one of the very first engagements in the new policing ministers diary, a point I mentioned at the beginning of my speech.
Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): Let me take this opportunity to welcome the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims to his new role and congratulate him on his promotion. If ever there was a Minister who will understand the issues I want to raise, it will be this Minister, who in his previous role as a fire-fighter will have come across the very issues that I hope he is eager to support me in addressing.
Let me set the background for the Minister. For the past few months, in my role as chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, I have been leading an inquiry into how suicide prevention strategies have changed since the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, two years ago. Unfortunately, one of the many aspects of that Bill was the change to suicide prevention strategies in England. At the time, the all-party group recommended that local suicide prevention strategies be placed at the heart of the national suicide prevention plan. When led by committed local champions and given sufficient resources, local suicide prevention plans are seen as by far the most effective way of preventing suicide.
The new national suicide strategy, however, included no statutory requirement for local suicide prevention plans. The Samaritans reported that the lack of a statutory requirement created a “major barrier” to the survival of local prevention plans. The report from the all-party group is due this autumn, but from our conversations with the directors of Public Health England, health care professionals, experts in suicide prevention from the devolved Administrations and representatives from the police, it has already become clear that the lack of clarity about responsibility for suicide intervention, post-intervention and prevention is creating problems that must be resolved.
Three weeks ago I attended one day of the five-day course by the hostage negotiation trainers at the Hendon police college. The course is intensive and difficult, and I was impressed by the calibre of officers attending from around the country. There is thankfully not a great call for hostage negotiations, but officers are frequently called out to deal with people contemplating suicide who need to be talked down from a roof, a bridge or the top of a car park. The frustration of those officers is great when, having spent hours talking someone down and taking them to A and E, they are told that there is no help because the person does not have an identifiable mental illness, but is depressed or anxious, or has a personality disorder or a learning disability.
This is not the first time I have raised the issue. On 26 June, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on “the responsibility gap faced by British Transport and Home Office police when they find an individual in emotional and mental crisis attempting suicide". Police officers are estimated to spend 40% of their time dealing with mental health problems, including suicide. In their research, Murphy et al acknowledged that 80% of police time is devoted to social services issues rather than to crime prevention.
I am told that considerable work is being done to look at the interaction between police services and the NHS, particularly in sensitive areas relating to mental health. What is clear from the evidence that I have heard is that there is new money and new engagement in mental health; that is happening. Sadly, however, one person giving evidence to the inquiry said, “If I call a meeting to discuss mental health, the room is full. If it’s suicide, nobody wants to know. It’s too difficult.”
I can say that the police increasingly have difficulty finding beds for people who need help and support. Although I cannot comment on the specific situation in Hampshire, the inquiry will reveal whether a suicide prevention action plan is in place and whether there is active engagement with the police in relation to that plan. I hope that that will be of assistance to the hon. Gentleman in assessing his local problems and issues.
The role of the police in dealing with mental health issues, mental health crises and suicide is growing. The figures from British Transport police on mental health incidents and suicide are shocking. I appreciate that the Minister will tell me that he has no responsibility for British Transport police, but they have been able to give me the most illuminating breakdown that shows the depth of the problem that we face. For every sexual offence dealt with on the railways, there are 15 mental health incidents, four of which are related to suicide. For every offence of robbery, there are 39 mental health incidents, 10 of which will relate to suicide. For every non-sexual assault, there are two mental health incidents. Last year, there were more calls to British Transport police relating to mental health incidents than there were reports of robbery and assault combined. In fact, British Transport police currently prevent more people from taking their own life every year than there are robberies every year. Those statistics show the size of the problem that we have drifted into.
The British Transport police are not alone in dealing with mental health issues. The Metropolitan police are reporting large increases in the number of people in mental health crisis committing offences deliberately for the purpose of getting into prison, because they believe that they will be safer in a cell than on the streets. At least in prison, they will have access to mental health support. Police say that they are told by local authorities that they are using section 136 powers too regularly, but they do not have any viable alternative to the place of safety that a police cell represents.
The British Journal of Psychiatry reports that in the north-east of England, a total of 205 cases of suicide were identified, 41 of which had a documented contact with the police within three months prior to the suicide while an additional seven cases had impending court appearances. In almost a quarter of suicide cases, the person had been in direct contact with the criminal justice system within the previous three months. Figures taken from the national confidential inquiry into suicides showed that in 24% of suicide cases, the person had been in contact with mental health services within 12 months of their death, compared with 70% who had been in contact with the police.
In my previous Westminster Hall debate on the subject, the former Policing Minister told me: “It is obvious that the police have, and will continue to have, a key role in dealing with mental health issues as they arise." That is undoubtedly the case, but is it right for the police always to be the point of engagement for those who are at risk of suicide? Those with mental health issues are three times more likely to be the victim of crime, and half of those with some form of mental ill health experienced a crime in the last year alone. The former policing Minister told me that the police “are not and cannot replace health professionals. Both types of professionals should be left to do the job that they are best at doing and trained to do”. Unintentionally, the Minister described what is wrong with the current situation. The police are increasingly replacing mental health professionals.
I am worried by the fact that when a police officer comes into contact with an individual whom they suspect is experiencing a mental health crisis, if that person goes on to take their own life, the officer will be investigated. They are often requested by social services to call on someone who is seen to be at risk, but it is the police officer and not someone from social services who is subject to an internal investigation. Police officers feel particularly aggrieved that they, who have no specialist training in identifying mental ill health, are expected to be accountable should someone with a mental health problem ultimately take their own life.
In my Westminster Hall debate, the former policing Minister spoke positively of the benefits of joint working. Many directors of public health and other suicide prevention professionals have said that the only really successful approach to the issue is multi-agency working. They see police and health professionals working together in a well-defined manner. Will the Minister tell the House what progress the Government are making on such an approach? In particular, what efforts are being made to log incidents of suspected and attempted suicide and to provide that information, in agreement with the coroner, as timely, current examples of the problems and risks faced locally, rather than prevention services having to wait three years for the national statistics to be released?
The Minister will be aware of MARACs—multi-agency risk assessment conferences—in relation to domestic violence. They have been piloted in some Metropolitan Police areas to highlight the suicide risk of individuals and to provide a supportive package. I was told a wonderful story from a MARAC involving a lady with dementia who had been burgled some 30 years earlier and was ringing the police several times a day to report a burglary. The initial response was that she should be given an antisocial behaviour order, but the MARAC pointed out that that was not the best way of dealing with her and a support package was put in place. Police time was saved and an elderly lady was saved huge distress. Will the Minister examine how MARACs are working and whether they can be rolled out as an exemplar across the UK?
We all agree that the police play an important role in dealing with mental health issues, but post-attempted suicide support should not be a police responsibility. British Transport and Home Office police recognise that their primary responsibility is to those whose life is at risk, but that responsibility is not placed on other statutory agencies, which are able to walk away when the police cannot. It is imperative that health, voluntary sector and local government agencies, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford, work together to establish a joined-up strategy, with a primary responsibility to those whose life is at risk, that both prevents suicide and deals appropriately with those who have survived a suicide attempt, ensuring in the best way possible that they do not go on to make a further attempt.
Police officers are there to deal with crises, risk to life and crime. Sadly, too much of the Minister’s budget and officer time is taken up filling gaps that health, local government and appropriate funding of the voluntary sector should be filling. I look forward to hearing how the Minister plans to free police time and responsibility for those attempting or contemplating suicide once the immediate crisis has been resolved