Theresa May NewHome Secretary Theresa May has outlined plans to end the use of police cells as a ‘place of safety’ for those experiencing a mental health crisis.

Currently, thousands of people – children and adults – detained under Section 135 or 136 of the Mental Health Act end up in police cells each year. May’s proposal seeks to end that. To support this, £15 million will be committed to the NHS to fund alternative places that people in mental health crisis can be taken to and cared for by trained professionals.

May announced the plans as she addressed the annual conference of the Police Federation of England and Wales. “Nobody wins when the police are sent to look after people suffering from mental health problems,” she said.

“Vulnerable people don't get the care they need and deserve, and the police can't get on with the job they are trained to do. The right place for a person suffering a mental health crisis is a bed, not a police cell. And the right people to look after them are medically trained professionals, not police officers.” 

The move has been welcomed by mental health organisations. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: “A police cell is not an appropriate or therapeutic place for people in mental health crisis. No matter who you are or where you live, you should have access to an appropriate ‘place of safety’, such as a specialist suite in a hospital or community setting. We look forward to seeing the draft legislation and to working with the Home Office to close the legal loophole that allows people in crisis to end up in a cell in anything other than genuinely exceptional circumstances.

“It is not clear whether the £15 million pledged to make this happen is new money or will come out of existing NHS budgets, but we are nevertheless pleased to see ending the use of police cells for people in crisis made a priority. Across England, every police force has signed up to the Crisis Care Concordat and they working with local NHS, local authorities and other services to deliver joint action plans to ensure a safe and swift service for people in mental health crisis. Every local action plan includes a commitment to reduce the use of police cells and so it is more important than ever that the funding pledged reaches the frontline. We will be watching closely to make sure that this happens.”

Overstretched services

Mark Winstanley, CEO of fellow charity Rethink Mental Illness, added that the funding is welcome as: “…there simply aren’t enough crisis services across the country, and where they do exist they are badly overstretched. As a result, too many people with mental health problems end up in police cells, including children, which is completely unacceptable. 

“This is a huge problem, and it will take continued investment right across the mental health system to tackle it. But this new funding is an important step in the right direction, and we’re very pleased that the Home Secretary has recognised the seriousness of this issue.”

Centre for Mental Health chief executive, Sean Duggan, added that investing in places of safety that are appropriate for children and adults is vital to give an alternative to the use of police cells. “It will be essential, however, for these units to be properly staffed and for police officers to know how to use them,” he warned.

“It is also essential that we invest in community mental health support for people of all ages, where possible preventing crises from happening and supporting recovery for people who have experienced a crisis. Both children’s and adults’ mental health services have experienced damaging cuts in funding in recent years. Investing in earlier and more effective mental health care is key to preventing crises whenever possible and to responding effectively and respectfully when a person needs urgent care.”