hospitalShortages of mental health inpatient beds are a failure of local clinical commissioning and the government is not aware of any cases of people being unnecessarily sectioned in order to secure a bed, a government peer has said.

Responding to a question by Labour peer Lord Bradley in the House of Lords on July 29 on what action the government is taking to stop patients being unnecessarily sectioned because of shortages of mental health beds, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health, Earl Howe, said “we are not aware of any incidents of patients being unnecessarily sectioned.”

This is despite a survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Psychiatric Trainees' Committee (RCPsych PTC) in June that found that 37% of respondents said a colleague’s decision to detain a patient under the Mental Health Act had been influenced by the fact that doing so might make the provision of a bed more likely, and 18% said their own decisions had been influenced in such a way. Meanwhile, 24% reported that a bed manager had told them that unless their patient had been sectioned they would not get a bed.

Earl Howe added that “It is for local clinical commissioning groups to commission the right number of in-patient beds to meet the mental health needs of their local population.

“I am certainly aware that a number of concerns have been raised about the lack of mental health beds and that there are occasions when patients do not receive care quickly enough because approved mental health professionals [AMHPs] cannot locate an appropriate bed. [But] that is essentially a failing of local clinical commissioning. However, AMHPs… should not be put in that position. 

Earl Howe said the government is consulting on a revised code of practice for the Mental Health Act, which includes a specific question which asks what additional guidance should be included to ensure that AMHPs are not put in that position.

In response to a follow-up question from Baroness Brinton on the findings of the RCPsych PTC survey, and that if people were not reporting it formally, could Ministers ask NHS England to ensure that there is a survey of how many doctors are having to use sectioning, to prevent this continuing? Earl Howe said it was important to get to the bottom of what is really happening. 

“We take this issue very seriously,” he said. “The Care Quality Commission intends to explore the issue of people being detained in order to access psychiatric units in its on-going review of emergency mental health care. The findings of that review will be published later this year.”