Today, the Police and Crime Act received Royal Assent and therefore becomes law, bringing with it new powers and responsibilities for Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables.
Introduced by the Prime Minister during her time as Home Secretary, nearly a year was spent debating the various provisions, which include radical and welcome reforms around mental health, complaints processes and collaboration.
A key part of the legislation for me relates to the use of Police cells as a place of safety for someone detained under section 136 (s136) of the mental health. In recent years, there had been a rise in the number of people detained under s136 and conveyed to a health-based place of safety. However, due to the lack of availability of these suites, more and more Officer time has been spent waiting outside s136 facilities and accident and emergency departments so that the individual suffering from mental health crisis could get the right support from the right person. This led to a rise in the number of people being detained in Police custody as there was nowhere safe for them to go.
Last year, we nationally saw a drop in the use of s136 detentions and the number of adults being taken to Police cells fell. In Kent, we were one of few areas to see a rise in the use of Police cells. Yet upon close examination, found that the appropriate decision was being made by Officers in nearly every case. Now that the new legislation comes into effect, children cannot be held in Police cells under s136 in any circumstances, and for adults it must be an absolute last resort. Those situations are currently subject to discussion.
I would have preferred personally an outright ban, but the National Police Chiefs Council has announced a policy intention of voluntarily seeking to not use custody at all for s136. This is good news for vulnerable people, but in the meantime, mental health trusts, CCGS and Police Forces are working together in order to ensure that from April 2017, there is a proper place for these people to go when suffering mental health crisis.
I hope that this will be supported locally by my new Mental Health and Policing Fund, which starts in April. In total, there is £250,000 funding per year available for projects that will help to reduce the demand on Kent Police time and ensure people get support either earlier or from the right people. I have been clear that this is not a subsidy for the NHS, and it cannot replace funding for statutory services where it may have been cut before. This will be for new projects or expanded services, run by local charities, support groups or councils that perhaps offer early intervention, support and guidance or an alternative place of safety.
Compared to the budgets of other organisations, this may not seem like a lot of money, and I would love to be able to commit more. But this is a bold step for a PCC to take, and a move in the right direction if we are to support Officers and staff and reduce the demands on their time, when there is somebody else who could be helping vulnerable people.
Another big reform that the Police and Crime Act introduces is around collaboration, and specifically, Fire and Rescue Services. This includes a duty for Police, Fire and emergency ambulance services to consider collaboration with one another if it could improve effectiveness and efficiency. Some Police Forces have good examples of where this is already working in practice. Here in Kent, we share our call handling facility with Kent Fire and Rescue Service, a change that saved taxpayers money and won national recognition. Many Forces are starting to share estates with their local Fire Services too. Kent currently works with Kent Fire and Rescue on 23 different projects collaboratively, and have over a dozen on the table for consideration, even before the legislation comes into effect.
The Act makes provision for Police and Crime Commissioners to go further than this too. Not only will PCCs be able to take a seat on Fire and Rescue authorities, we can put together a business case to take on formally the Governance of fire, or even look towards a single employer for Police and Fire, under one Chief Officer. I do not presently have the ambition to take on responsibility for both in Kent, but many colleagues are looking to do so where there is a more pressing need for reform and stronger governance.
Finally, the complaints process will become more transparent by bringing Police and Crime Commissioners into it more formally. At present, PCCs are responsible for complaints made against the Chief Constable. The Act will give PCCs the function of oversight of the complaints process and taking on responsibility for appeals currently heard by the Chief Constable. By 2018, we will also have the ability to take over the recording of complaints, including keeping complainants updated on their cases.
There are new operational powers too. Policing Support Officers will bring together investigative, detention and other support staff into a new role, with the ability for the Chief Constable to give them greater powers. From June, Forces will be able to recruit volunteer PCSOs and Policing Support Officers. Police powers will be extended for cross-border and maritime enforcement and there are significant changes to the way in which bail is handled.
The Police and Crime Act is a significant piece of legislation, which helps to continue to work started by the previous Home Secretary on accountability, transparency and openness. It allows many different organisations to come together to improve services and save money. Importantly, it supports the principle that people suffering mental health crisis need to get the right support from the right person at the right time. The expectation that has wrongly fallen on the shoulders of serving Police officers and staff as the service of last resort is finally being challenged through legislation.