The recent House of Lords debate on the use of Taser firearms in inpatient mental health settings highlighted a little-known issue – and it is a practice that should be banned as soon as possible, says Matilda MacAttram.
The House of Lords’ debate on an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill calling for an outright ban on the use of Taser stun guns against detained patients in locked psychiatric settings marked a significant step in Black Mental Health UK's (BMH UK) campaign on this issue.
Our demand that the government end the practice of police deploying these firearms against patients has shattered the silence that surrounded their use in mental health hospitals.
As the only agency that has spoken out on this disturbing practice, BMH UK's lobbying has secured parliamentary debates on it in the Houses of Commons and Lords, and effectively put a national spotlight on this hidden human rights abuse in a way that the government can no longer ignore.
We are clear that our demands need to be included in the legislative changes going through parliament in this session and drafted into the Policing and Crime Bill 2015-16 to 16-17.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Baroness Joan Walmsley tabled the amendment for the banning of Tasers in hospitals in the Lords. Quoting extensively from a BMH UK briefing during the debate, she told peers that: “Tasers have been used against patients over the past 10 years, but the unequal power balance between those subject to such treatment and statutory providers and the police has silenced public debate around this issue.”
Baroness Walmsley then posed the question of: “why the CQC [Care Quality Commission] and/or the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Committee] have not reported on this before?”
Back in August, in the wake of the Taser-related death of former Premier League footballer Dalian Atkinson, BMH UK wrote to the chair of the CQC over these concerns. This letter requested that the CQC require statutory providers to report every Taser incident to them and also how often police are being required to attend incidents on psychiatric wards, in order to get a national picture of the extent and frequency of these practices. There has been no reply or acknowledgement that this correspondence, which was sent three months ago, and then re-sent, was ever received.
The ineffectiveness of the CQC to protect the rights of those detained under the Mental Health Act was flagged by a Public Accounts Committee report back in 2015. Also, research from the IPCC shows that communities or sections of society that are over-policed are least likely to complain or speak out about ill treatment, for fear of reprisal. This may go some way to answer Baroness Warmsley's question as to why there has been silence surrounding this human rights abuse until BMH UK launched its campaign two years ago.
During a joint Home Office and BMH UK summit on Policing and Mental Health in 2014, then Home Secretary – now Prime Minister – Theresa May spoke out about the disproportionate use of Taser firearms against black people from UK's African Caribbean communities as an issue of concern.
More recently, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, conceded that institutional racism is still problem plaguing the police force (Daily Telegraph, 2015; Guardian, 2015).
Black people continue to be disproportionately over-represented among those who are detained under the Mental Health Act, even though there isn't a higher prevalence of mental illness among black people – either common mental disorders or psychosis (Weich & McManus, 2002; Nazroo & King, 2002). Once in this system this group are subject to more coercive and punitive treatment than their white counterparts and are held in the most secure psychiatric facilities.
Hogan-Howe’s comments have reinforced community fears that the disproportionate use of Taser firearm may be far higher among black patients detained on psychiatric wards.
In their final report following a visit to the UK in 2013 the United Nations (UN) committee for the convention against Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (CAT) warned that Taser firearms are inadmissible in a place where there is a deprivation of liberty: BMH UK point to locked hospital wards as a prime example of this. CAT has also stated that TaserX26 weapons, which provoke extreme pain, constitute a form of torture.
In response to repeated calls for a ban on Taser use on locked wards, during the debate government Home Office minister Baroness Susan Williams informed peers of a letter Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, sent to police and crime commissioners, chief constables and the chairs of local mental health crisis care concordat partnerships in England recently.
Baroness Williams explained the government’s rationale for this: “As local leaders with overall responsibility for policing and mental health crisis care, they have been tasked with ensuring that mechanisms are in place in their areas for the joint identification and scrutiny of any use of Taser in a mental health setting.”
BMH UK is clear that you do not monitor human rights abuses you ban them. Nothing less than a ban on the use of these stun guns in hospital settings is acceptable. This is particularly important in light of the UK's re-election to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in October.
Human Rights Minister Baroness Anelay spoke of her delight that the UK has been re-elected to serve a further 3-year term on the HRC, saying: “The UK has been a strong advocate of the vital work of the Council since its inception.”
Member states of this inter-governmental body are responsible for promoting and protecting human rights around the world. The UN's own mandate says that only member states that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” are eligible to join.
BMH UK note that the prevention of torture is a foreign policy priority for the UK. It would be fitting as this nation begins its third term on the HRC to ensure that the human rights the UK promotes to other nations are also extended to those detained in psychiatric settings at home, by ensuring that there is an amendment for an outright ban on the use of Taser firearms against detained patients included in the Policing and Crime Bill 2015-16 to 16-17.
Click here for BMH UK's Change.org petition to ban Taser use against detained mental health patients.
Evans M (2015) Met chief accepts fore may be 'institutionally racist'. Daily Telegraph. Available at: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11655358/Met-chief-accepts-force-may-be-institutionally-racist.html
Halliday J (2015) Met Chief admits 'institutional racism' claims may have 'some' justification. The Guardian. Available at: www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/05/met-chief-admits-institutional-racism-claims-have-some-justification
Home Office (2014) Home Office & Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK) Joint Summit on Policing and Mental Health. Home Secretary's Speech. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretary-at-the-policing-and-mental-health-summit
Nazroo J & King M (2002) ‘Pyschosis – symptoms and estimated rates’ in Sproston K and Nazroo J (eds), Ethnic Minority Psychiatric Illness Rates in the Community (EMPIRIC) – Quantitative Report. Norwich: The Stationery Office.
Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (2015) Care Quality Commission not yet an effective regulator. London: Parliament. Available at: www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news-parliament-2015/care-quality-commission-report-published-15-16/
Weich S & McManus S (2002) ‘Common mental disorders’ in Sproston K and Nazroo J (eds), Ethnic Minority Psychiatric Illness Rates in the Community (EMPIRIC) – Quantitative Report. Norwich: The Stationery Office.
About the author
Matilda MacAttram is founder and director of Black Mental Health UK, and a fellow of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. She a member of the National Police Chiefs' Council use of force Programme Board and the Metropolitan Police’s Firearms and Taser Reference Group.
For more information, follow on @bmhuk on Twitter or go to: www.blackmentalhealth.org.uk