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Norman Lamb challenges use of Tasers and police cells in mental health crisis


Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Health, yesterday argued for a change in the law which would prohibit the use of Tasers in psychiatric wards and end the use of police cells to detain adults under Sections 135/136 of the Mental Health Act.

The proposals were part of a raft of amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill, tabled by the North Norfolk MP to protect the rights and wellbeing of people with mental illness.

In 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has stated that Taser X26 weapons – the type used by trained police officers in the UK – provoke extreme pain and constitute a form of torture, and have even been known to cause death in certain cases. The Home Secretary was also quoted earlier this year saying: “I have been hearing stories, for example, of Tasers having been used in mental health wards and you think, ‘Hang on a minute, what is happening here?’”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Norman Lamb said that he wanted to begin a wider debate on whether it is appropriate to use electroshock weapons against mental health patients, after the charity Black Mental Health UK called for an end to the practice.

Mr. Lamb also praised the “inspiring leadership” of police officers and mental health services in places such as London and the West Midlands, where the use of police cells for people experiencing a mental health crisis has ended in all but the most extreme cases.

The Policing and Crime Bill prohibits any child aged under 18 from being removed to a police station as a place of safety under S135/136 of the Mental Health Act.  Arguing for the ban to be extended to cover adults, which is supported by the mental health charity Mind, Mr. Lamb said: “If those areas of the country with impressive leadership can do it, we should challenge every part of the country to do so, and the Bill should lead the way.”

The amendments were not supported by the Conservative Government or the Labour Party, and will not become law.  

Speaking after the debate in the House of Commons, Norman Lamb said:

“I was pleased to put forward these important amendments to improve the rights of people with mental ill health, who are too often let down by the system.

Tasers present an enormous ethical dilemma. Whilst I appreciate the arguments put forward by some police officers for the use of Tasers as a last resort, there is a powerful case to be made for ending their use in mental health wards altogether.

“In some U.S. states including New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, Tasers are not permitted in state psychiatric wards.  Police officers are required to store their weapons in a secure area or lock box before entering a patient area.”

“I hope that my amendments will help to kick-start a full and frank debate on the circumstances, if any, in which it can be necessary or justified to use a Taser in a mental health ward.

“I will also continue to argue against the use of police cells for adults detained under the Mental Health Act. Although I welcome the Government’s commitment to end the use of police stations for children, it seems arbitrary that adults in some parts of the country will still have to suffer this indignity due to a lack of health-based alternatives. People with mental illness should not be treated like criminals.”

During the debate, Norman Lamb also argued for his other amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill which would:

  • Prevent a person from being taken back to their own home and detained there if they are sectioned under section 136 of the Mental Health Act. For some people experiencing a mental health crisis, being detained by a stranger in their own home can cause long-lasting damage for the way they feel about their home. In the Commons, Norman Lamb argued: “The fear is that that will become the default position in some localities because of the lack of resources available… In circumstances where section 136 is used, surely the person should be taken to a health-based place of safety.”
  • Place a duty on the police or local authority to ensure that children who are believed to be the victims of sexual abuse or exploitation are referred to an appropriate mental health service for assessment and appropriate support. This seeks to implement one of the recommendations in the ‘Future in Mind’ report on children’s mental health services published by Norman Lamb in the Coalition Government, which states that sexually abused and exploited children should receive “a comprehensive specialist initial assessment, and referral to appropriate services providing evidence-based interventions according to their need.”
  • Extend the right to an independent mental health advocate to people detained under sections 135/136.  An appropriate adult can help a person understand their rights and the reasons why certain decisions have been made, speak on their behalf, and stand up for their interests if they have been badly treated. Anyone detained under the Mental Health Act currently has a right to an advocate, apart from people who are detained under certain short term sections (4, 5, 135 and 136).
  • Ensure that the permitted 24-hour ‘period of detention’ for people detained under sections 135/136 would start at the point a person was detained, rather than the time they arrived at a place of safety. This would address concerns that people might be travelling for a long time before arriving at their place of safety, deprived of their liberty, without this being counted in the permitted period of detention. 

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