PCC Blog 64

Almost every month, over 100 people will be detained by the police in South Yorkshire using powers under the Mental Health Act.

Section 136 allows officers to detain people who are in immediate need of care and control, and to take them to a place of safety. The use of this power went up at the start of the pandemic and has remained high ever since. Looking back over last year (April 2020 – March 2021), the monthly figures mainly hovered around 100-116, but in May there were 145 detentions. This was an overall increase of 21% on the year before. Mental health has become a major issue for the police.

Of course, police officers are not medically qualified and, as with many police decisions, we have to rely on the good judgement of individual officers if they invoke Section 136 powers. If people are facing a mental health crisis they should be conveyed to a place of safety, not by police officers in a police vehicle, but by people who are medically trained in an ambulance who know what to do if the person’s condition becomes more acute.

That is the ideal. But the ambulance service is also stretched and it may be some time before a crew can reach the person with the health issue. So again, a judgement has to be made: does the police officer wait or take the person in a police car? And that raises another matter. Supplying a place of safety is the responsibility of the local authority – and they too are under great pressure. If no place is available, the only resort the police officer may have is to take someone to a custody suite – which is not good. People with mental health issues should not be in police cells.

At the start of last year, 70% of Section 136 detainees were taken by police vehicle to a place of safety – and that concerned me greatly: this was not good for the person with the mental health issue or the police officers who had to take on this responsibility.

I am pleased to say that by March 2021 those transported in police vehicles had fallen to 50% and throughout the year no one was detained in a police cell.

All this is just one more example of what we ask of the modern police force. Yet mental health does not figure in the Home Office list of key requirements for police forces. And the danger with that is that if it is not see as a top priority nationally it will slip from being a priority locally.

Afghanistan and policing

The political decision to leave Afghanistan to its fate was as shocking as it was shameful. When I think of the meticulous scenario planning our officers do in advance of some signifiant event – a local derby football match, for instance – it beggars belief that everyone seems to have been caught out in Kabul.

But what has now happened is not just something in a far country with nothing to do with us.

There will almost certainly be consequences for our future safety and for policing in its broadest sense – in two ways.

First, British, American and other troops went into Afghanistan because the Taliban had allowed the extremist group al-Qaeda to set up training bases there – where they planned the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. They have been suppressed for almost twenty years, but they have not gone away and may now re-group.

And second, the fall of Kabul will give a boost to those who harbour the same extremist ideology as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That ideology has inspired individuals and groups to commit acts of terror in many countries, including the United Kingdom. It is a major setback to all our efforts at reducing extremism. The country’s counter terrorism strategy will need to be urgently re-thought and re-invigorated in the light of it.

I once attended a seminar at which a former member of the IRA spoke about why they had finally given up their armed struggle. He said, they had to be persuaded that they could not win their political objectives through violence: they had to be defeated militarily. A very different lesson has just been learnt in Afghanistan.

Why division without multiplication ends in tears

If I were to ask a member of the public how much money the Home Office (HO) should give to each of the country’s 43 police forces, the initial and instinctive answer might be: they should all get the same. Then they might pause and realise that some forces serve bigger populations, some have more sheep than people, some have more violent crimes, and so on. Quite quickly they would recognise that a set of rather sophisticated criteria might be needed to distribute the money for policing fairly. These criteria exist – called the police allocation formula (PAF).

There is a second reason for having a sophisticated formula – council tax. Each force is funded through a mix of grant and council tax, but the amount that can be raised through council tax differs hugely from area to area (as we saw in another blog). The wealthier the area, the more properties will be in band D or above, and so the more can be raised from local tax. This has to be reflected in the formula as well.

Unsurprisingly, therefore the PAF runs to many pages and seeks to distribute funding according to the relative needs of each force. It takes into account the demand on each force according to types of crime – from the less serious to the most. It also recognises that some forces have particular non-crime pressures that others don’t – such as the need for crowd safety at football grounds and protests. But these special events take up less time than, say, complex murder or sexual exploitation investigations. And some forces in rural areas have many more road traffic collisions than urban forces. A numerical value is worked out for each of the various categories. The final formula then determines how much each force will receive according to need over the next three years – the period of the Spending Review (SR). As I write, all this is being worked out with the Treasury.

Each police and crime commissioner and each police force is currently taking a keen interest in the funding formula because as we begin a new SR period it is being reviewed. Each PCC and force wants greater weighting to be given to those demands that fall most pressingly on them. But you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that if the total pot of money is not growing in real terms, any changes to the formula will mean that someone can benefit only at the expense of someone else. If the pie doesn’t get bigger, giving a larger slice to one means a smaller slice for someone else. There will be winners, but there will also be losers.

In situations like this we must be careful what we wish for.

Stay safe and well.