News story

Restricting the use of police cells for those experiencing a mental health crisis

Banning the use of police cells as a place of safety for under 18s and ensuring they are only used for adults in exceptional circumstances


In delivering a manifesto pledge to ensure proper provision of places of safety for people in this situation, the Home Office will take forward legislation to greatly restrict the circumstances when a police cell can be used.

The Government has been clear that police cells are a poor environment for any person experiencing a mental health crisis. They can make service users feel criminalised and exacerbate levels of distress. This is especially true for those under the age of 18 - yet in 2014/15 more than 150 children and young people were detained in police cells.

Changes to the Mental Health Act will be made under the forthcoming Policing and Crime Bill. They include:

  • Banning police cells as a “place of safety” for under-18s.
  • Creating regulations to limit the circumstances in which police cells can be used a place of safety for adults.
  • Reducing the maximum duration of detention for the purposes of an assessment under the Act from 72 to 24 hours.
  • Widening the current definition of a place of safety to increase local capacity and flexibility.
  • Extending police officers’ powers to act quickly to detain and remove people experiencing a mental health crisis from any place other than a private dwelling (for which a warrant would still be required).
  • Requiring police officers to consult health professionals before detaining someone under the Act’s provisions.
  • Clarifying that assessments under the Act can take place in a private dwelling.

Karen Bradley, Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, said:

The best place for people experiencing a mental health crisis is a healthcare setting, and those experiencing mental health problems should receive specialist care and support from healthcare professionals, rather than police officers.

Too often and for far too long, vulnerable people experiencing a mental health crisis who have committed no crime have found themselves in a police cell because there is nowhere else to go.

These measures will ensure a police cell is truly a place of last resort for vulnerable people experiencing mental health crises. Nobody wins when the police are sent to look after people with mental health problems; vulnerable people don’t get the care they need and deserve, and the police can’t get on with the job they are trained to do.

Alistair Burt, Minister for Mental Health, said:

Having a mental illness is not a crime, so a police cell is the last place you should be when experiencing a crisis – especially if you are a young person. I’m delighted to be delivering on our promise to end this practice for under 18s – it means families can have peace of mind that their loved ones will always be cared for in the right environment.

Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff and police we have more health-based places of safety and have reduced the number of police detentions but I look forward to seeing how these measures make sure people with mental illness get the compassionate care they deserve.

A 2014 review of the sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act found people were being detained in police cells because of a lack of available health-based places of safety, whether this was due to capacity issues, staffing levels or opening hours.

In May 2015 Home Secretary Theresa May announced up to £15 million of funding to provide health-based alternatives to police cells. Additional provision will be focused on the areas of the country where use of police cells is highest.

The Government has already implemented a range of measures to improve the care people receive and to reduce the burden on police officers, including street triage, liaison and diversion, the Crisis Care Concordat and an alternative place of safety pilot in Sussex for people detained under Sections 135 and 136.

These measures have contributed to an almost 50% reduction in the number of times police cells were used as a place of safety in England and Wales between 2011/12 and 2014/15, but progress is highly variable across the country with five police force areas accounting for more than half of all uses of police cells.

This change in legislation will put an end once and for all to the practice of using police cells simply because there is no suitable alternative available and ensure that all suffers of mental health, no matter where they live, are cared for in the proper environment.

Published 8 February 2016