Police in England to attend fewer mental health call-outs under new government plan

The government is to roll out the Right Care, Right Person approach across England, meaning that most mental health emergencies will be attended by mental health professionals rather than police officers

26th July 2023 about a 4 minute read
“It is simply impossible to take a million hours of support out of the system without replacing it with investment, and mental health services are not resourced to step up overnight.” Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive, Mind

A new national strategy announced by the government means that police forces will significantly reduce the number of mental-health related 999 calls they attend.

The government believes the policy, known as Right Care, Right Person (RCRP), could save a million hours of police time every year.  Chris Philp, the policing minister, said that police should still attend calls involving mental health issues if there is a risk to public safety or if a crime has been committed.

At the moment, however, some police forces attend 80% of 999 calls relating to mental health crises, and the plan is to reduce this to 20-30% of calls in the next two years.

Instead of staying with the person in crisis, which often entails escorting them to hospital and waiting with them in an A&E department, police officers will be expected to hand over cases to health workers within an hour.

The government is providing an extra £1bn a year to fund the policy. This includes £150m for facilities to replace police officers, such as specialist mental-health ambulances, extra capacity for treating patients and crisis cafes where people struggling to cope can drop in for help.

Operators who handle 999 calls are being trained to assess a request for officers to attend, and decide whether someone’s life is at risk, whether there is a threat to the public and whether a possible crime is being committed.

Philp, who wants the change to be completed within the next two years, told the BBC’s Today programme he was “confident” that the new scheme would be safe, though he acknowledged that more capacity was needed to deal with mental health problems. He said the plans would not be rolled out with a “big bang” on day one, but would be decided in “discussion with police and the local health partners”.

Making sure vulnerable people receive ‘appropriate care’

The move is supported by the National Police Chiefs Council. The council’s lead for policing and mental health, Rachel Bacon, said that when police were sent, people in mental health crises often felt criminalised: “This is not about us stepping away from mental health incidents, it is about ensuring the most vulnerable people receive the appropriate care, which we are not always best placed to provide.”

Dr Sarah Hughes, the chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, was sceptical about the plan, saying that it “goes nowhere near offering enough guarantees that these changes will be introduced safely – there is no new funding attached and no explanation of how agencies will be held accountable.” She added: “It is simply impossible to take a million hours of support out of the system without replacing it with investment, and mental health services are not resourced to step up overnight.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists also expressed concern, saying that the plan must not be “a green light for a unilateral discontinuation” of police involvement in mental health emergencies, describing that as “a real danger to patients”.

Dr Lade Smith, the president of the College, said: “The fact is there are certain legal powers only held by the police such as the power to convey a person in crisis from a public place to a place of safety, and so mental health is always going to be police business.”

Philp said: “These are services that the NHS is in their remit to provide anyway … we’re not creating a new demand. It’s something the NHS should always be doing.”

Humberside Police, which has been using RCRP for three years, said it had saved an average of 1,441 hours of police time a month. Three other force – Hampshire, Lancashire and South Yorkshire – have also begun introducing the policy.

FCC Insight

FCC has reported several times on this story, which has been trailed heavily by the government in the months leading up to today’s formal announcement. It is hard to find fault with the idea that mental health professionals are better equipped than the police to deal with people in crisis. The current system, in which officers spend hours sitting in A&E with mentally vulnerable patients, is neither a good use of police time nor the best way of supporting those patients. It makes far more sense for well-trained mental health support workers to attend patients in crisis and make sure they receive appropriate and timely support. The difficulty, however, as Mind points out, is that these changes need to be properly funded and resourced so that there are enough mental health professionals to respond to emergency calls, and that the police continue to attend if there is a risk to life. Mind is right to worry that, if these changes are rushed out too soon, they could make matters worse for people in mental health crisis rather than better.