Devon police anger at NHS mental health bed shortage

SHAUN Sawyer, the Chief Constable of Devon police, last week wrote in anger to the Devonshire Partnership NHS Trust to say that in future he will hold the Trust to account and refuse to “unlawfully” hold people with mental illness in police cells because the NHS has no beds for them.

The letter was leaked to the local Express and Echo. It says legal action may be taken if the situation is not resolved. The Trust said it was disappointed but accepted that more needed to be done. Sawyer said that whilst it was “unedifying” to sue a public body, he would do so if necessary.

“It’s contingent and hopefully something that would never occur because it’s public money,” he told BBC News. Sawyer said that the number of “136 detentions” — where police can remove someone they believe to be mentally ill to a place of safety — has reduced but the current situation was unacceptable.

He claims beds are “not being made available effectively, speedily or efficiently in enough cases.”

“If somebody comes to harm, technically I’m holding them in those cells unlawfully,” he added. A police cell is a totally inappropriate place to hold someone who has committed no crime but is seriously mentally distressed, and having to hold them in this way for days is “not acceptable in anyone’s book”, said Sawyer.

His letter to the NHS trust made it clear that should harm occur because the NHS had not provided a bed, it was “unreasonable” for the police to take responsibility.

“We’ve had people in cells for four days — and that is just not acceptable in anyone’s book,” Sawyer said. He insisted it was a situation for the NHS and not the police to resolve. “To be candid, the NHS needs to move quicker on this.”

Trust Chief Executive Melanie Walker said she was disappointed by the chief constable’s stance because all public services were under “huge pressure”. She said that she would be speaking to Sawyer to clarify a difference in the number of detainees who had been held longer than necessary. “Of course, every single person who shouldn’t be in a police cell is one too many,” she added.


Meanwhile a survey of NHS applied psychologists published by the union Unite last Monday revealed that mental health services are reeling from a funding crisis, low morale and increased workloads.

Unite’s survey coincides with World Mental Health Day, against a background of broken promises from health secretary Jeremy Hunt on mental health funding and at a time when 25 per cent of adults in Britain suffer mental health problems in any one year.

Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “Our survey of our NHS applied psychologists is another ‘wake-up’ call that mental health services in the UK are reeling from a perfect storm of budget cuts, low morale and increased — and unsustainable — workloads, which impact adversely on patient care.

“Jeremy Hunt needs to address the funding crisis to deliver a well-qualified and trained workforce, better leadership and an end of practices that cause stress, fear and, ultimately, lead to highly qualified professionals departing the NHS, at a time when their skills are needed more than ever as mental health waiting lists get longer and longer.”

Antony Vassalos, who chairs Unite’s applied psychologists professional committee, added: “What applied psychologists across the UK are saying, loud and clear, is that they are being worn down by changes and major cuts in their services which are definitely not in the interest of patients, leading, as the survey shows, to increased stress at work and poor morale within the profession.”

Key findings from the survey include:

Last month, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests revealed that Jeremy Hunt was failing to meet his pledge to boost mental health funds, with more than half of the clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) saying that they will have to reduce mental health spending in this financial year.