Spending Review, police and mental health
Posted Friday 22 October 2010
Wednesday’s Spending Review announcement was a blow for Mind’s Another assault campaign to achieve equal access to justice for victims and witnesses with experience of mental distress. Deep cuts to the policing budget mean fewer frontline officers, little or no money for training, and a drive to “protect key priorities” – which, as history shows, is hardly likely to include so-called “diversity” issues like mental health.
Before Mind launched Another assault in 2007, there was barely any awareness in Government or the criminal justice system of the shocking rate of victimisation people with mental distress endure, and the considerable barriers they face to seeing their perpetrators brought to justice. In relation to mental health and criminal justice, the focus has traditionally been on offenders – wrongly, in my view. It’s true that the majority of prisoners have a mental health problem, but people with mental distress are in fact more likely to come into contact with the police as a victim of crime than an offender.
Through our campaigning we managed to win the argument that focusing on offenders alone is not enough. At the 7th annual Victims and Witnesses conference on Wednesday, the message was clear: to tackle crime, people who are victims, who have traditionally been marginalised by the very system set up to protect them, must be given equal access to justice. And since 2007 our campaign has seen some real successes, not least the launch in May this year of new guidance and training for frontline police officers on mental health. This is a huge step forward and, supported by local partnership working between police and voluntary groups, as showcased in our good practice guide, could have ushered in huge improvements in practice at the coalface of community policing.
Yet George Osborne’s announcement yesterday that government funding for the police will reduce by 20% over the next four years puts these fledgling initiatives at risk. Such a deep cut will undoubtedly result in fewer frontline officers on the beat. It is highly likely specialist roles like Mental Health Liaison Officers and Disability Hate Crime Leads will be scrapped. These roles have been crucial in many areas to drive forward improvements in practice, both at regional and very local levels, such as the Mental Health Liaison Officer in Hackney who recently won an award for his innovative work. Without this local leadership and commitment from Mental Health Liaison Officers, such work is likely to fall by the wayside.
On top of this, squeezed police budgets will mean less investment in training overall, but particularly on issues like mental health, which are already seen in many quarters as “nice to do”. Yet mental health awareness training is essential, in the moral sense of improving access to justice, and from a hard-headed business case perspective. Given the high numbers of people with mental distress that will come through the doors of the police station – most likely as a victim but as offenders too – how can the police be expected to do their job efficiently and effectively if they lack the confidence and skills to respond to people with mental health needs? It is a false economy to see “efficiency savings” purely as cutting back office functions like training, as these will cost police efficiency in the end.
The Government may point to its commitment to “invest in mental health liaison services at police stations and courts to intervene at an early stage, diverting mentally ill offenders away from the justice system and into treatment” as evidence they are not sidelining the importance of mental health to policing. This move is clearly welcome, but it does not address the problems faced by victims and witnesses of crimes – and it falls into that old trap of assuming mental health and criminal justice is all about offending.
It is short-sighted to make such deep cuts in policing, as the more people are marginalised from the justice system, fewer crimes will be reported, and offending rates will go up – not to mention the personal impact of crimes on people’s lives, with knock-on effects for other public services. These effects will all cost the state more overall, not less.
But the spending decisions are made now – so Mind will make the case to Government and national police bodies that mental health must be seen as a “key priority” for the police in these straightened times. We will push for Mental Health Liaison Officers to be protected and the new training and guidance to be rolled out as planned. We will also play our part in sharing best practice – and delivering innovative solutions through our local Minds – to try and mitigate the potentially devastating impact of the policing cuts to equal access to justice for people with mental distress.
Amy Whitelock, Policy and Campaigns Officer
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