|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome the opportunity for this debate, which is inspired by the very tragic and totally unnecessary death of Glenn Howard. I have been involved with his case for four years, and my sole purpose today is to call for a public inquiry into the circumstances of his death. As will become apparent, investigations to date, which have lasted for nearly four years, have proved unsatisfactory. Many questions have been left unanswered, leaving Mr. Howard's family to endure unnecessary suffering.
A public inquiry would achieve two valuable aims. First, it would allow Mr. Howard's family to ascertain exactly what happened and to piece together those last few important moments of his life, thereby ending their long-standing torment. Secondly, equally importantly, a public inquiry is required because of the wider issues raised by Mr. Howard's case. It is imperative that an evaluation of police procedures and protocols dealing with the treatment of vulnerable individuals such as those with mental illness takes place. In particular, police procedures dealing with the training of officers, restraint techniques that are employed and the treatment of vulnerable individuals while they are in police custody need to be reassessed. It is hoped that a public inquiry will lead to the proposal of positive solutions, affording increased public confidence in the police and the development of a system whereby tragedies such as that of Glenn Howard can be prevented.
Glenn Howard was a 47-year-old musician who had a long history of mental health problems. He enjoyed not only his music, but tending to his tropical fish, which he kept in a fish tank at his flat. He was described by those who knew him as a very likeable individualpossibly eccentric, but with no previous history of aggressive or violent behaviour. From time to time, Glenn Howard was detained in Sutton hospital under section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which allows for mentally impaired individuals to be detained for short periods to alleviate or prevent the deterioration of their condition. In hospital he received the invaluable support and medication that was needed. While he was being detained at the hospital, it was not uncommon for him to abscond to return to his flat and feed his fish. After doing so, he would often return to the hospital of his own volition.
On 8 December 1997, Glenn Howard was detained at Sutton hospital for the 13th time. Two days later, on 10 December, hospital staff noticed that Glenn had absconded. A nurse contacted Sutton police station to report him missing and asked the police to return him to the hospital. Two officers, empowered under the Mental Health Act, responded to the call. They visited Sutton hospital, where it is claimed that nurses informed them that Glenn was not a violent individual, and that if they encountered any difficulties, hospital staff should be called to assist. At two minutes past eight that evening, the two officers attended Glenn Howard's home address. There they were let into the block of flats by a caretaker, where they met Glenn. Witnesses described him at the time as wholly co-operative with the officers. The officers then proceeded to leave the block of flats.
It is at that point that the story becomes unclear. The two officers claim that on leaving the premises, Mr. Howard tried to escape. It is claimed that a violent struggle took place. Nine other officers had been called to attend. During the struggle, Glenn Howard was restrained in a bear hug for up to four minutes, which had the effect of constricting his breathing. He was hit with a police baton and placed face on the floor, and his legs were crossed behind him. Officers then restrained him in handcuffs, first to his front and then behind his back.
At no time during the struggle were the officers who were called to assist informed of Glenn Howard's mental impairment. At some point officers noted that Glenn had vomited, but no action was taken in response. Instead, he was carried face down by five police officers and forcibly placed in the back of a police van.
Contrary to initial instructions, Mr. Howard was not returned to hospital. Instead, he was conveyed to Sutton police station. On arrival, Glenn's mouth was seen to be open and his head lolling backwards. He was rushed to the accident and emergency department of St. Helier hospital, where nurses attended to him. He was unconscious and hospital staff noted that he had turned blue and was not breathing. Attempts to resuscitate Mr. Howard were made. Sadly, all was futile; he never regained consciousness. His existence was reduced to a permanent vegetative state, and he was kept alive until 1 January 1999 only by the assistance of a ventilator. Later, doctors stated that Mr. Howard had not been breathing for up to 10 minutes before his arrival. His brain had been starved of oxygen for four minutes and it was said that the restraint techniques employed by the police were likely to have been a significant factor in his death.
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Howard's death posed several questions. Why were such restraint techniques employed? Why had the police not called for hospital assistance? Why were the other officers who were called to attend not informed of his condition? Why was Mr. Howard not taken straight to hospital? Perhaps the most important question is this: legal jurisprudence dictates that a mental patient detained in circumstances such as Glenn Howard's commit no criminal offence in absconding. Why was he then treated like an ordinary criminal rather than with the sensitivity that is and ought to be required when dealing with vulnerable individuals who are mentally unwell?
I find it astonishing that those questions have remained unanswered to date. The great difficulty experienced by Glenn Howard's family in acquiring elementary information about the circumstances of his death has made matters worse.
I am calling for a public inquiry because the inquest into his death revealed several outstanding issues. There is legitimate worry over the fact that the testimony supplied by officers contradicts vital evidence supplied by independent witnesses. One example is that police officers continue to deny being informed by hospital staff that Mr. Howard was not of a violent disposition, and that the hospital should be called to assist in the event of any difficulties. Officers have also failed to supply consistent and accurate details on the timing of events as they unfolded. I know that that is of great concern to Glenn Howard's family. The discrepancies are not acceptable and have resulted in unnecessary agony.
In fact, such was the nature of the discrepancies that the jury at the coroner's inquest ignored the coroner's direction not to comment on the circumstances of Mr. Howard's death. Confined to a finding of accidental death, the jury unanimously commented that
In further recognition of the inadequate handling of the case, disciplinary proceedings behind closed doors commenced under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority, which found that one officer had failed in his duty to monitor Mr. Howard.
My call for a public inquiry goes beyond seeking to account for those unanswered questions. An inquiry will inevitably go beyond the scope of Glenn Howard's death, as it is in the public interest to ensure that adequate training and techniques are employed by police officers when dealing with vulnerable individuals. For far too long, that has been a neglected area of public policy, which has led to the undermining of public confidence in the police and accounts for some of the 614 deaths of vulnerable individuals in police custody since 1990.
Never has there been more need to evaluate the protocols in place and their adequacy to deal with mental patients who abscond. I am supported in my cause by the organisation Rethink, formerly the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. The current review of mental health legislation allows an opportunity to adopt a fresh approach to vulnerable individuals. It is hoped that positive solutions can be found to increase police awareness and training for dealing with the mentally ill. Restraining techniques should be examined constructively and modified.
It is hoped that the scrutiny demanded of a public inquiry will lead to the creation or review of nationally agreed protocols backed by the Home Office, which would govern any interaction between the police and mentally ill patients. It is envisaged that nationally agreed protocols on dealing with people suffering from mental illness and other vulnerable individuals who abscond from hospital will require health and social care staff to take lead responsibility for the return of mental patients. Glenn Howard's death demonstrates that there are genuine concerns about the extent to which mental health services have become reliant on the police to implement mental health legislation.
New mental health legislation must ensure that, where possible, the mentally ill and vulnerable individuals are dealt with by people with specific expertise or, alternatively, family members. Police involvement and restraint techniques should be minimised. When police involvement cannot be avoided, measures must be in place to ensure that officers adhere to nationally agreed training standards when dealing with vulnerable individuals. Those standards should include regular refresher courses.
In the aftermath of Glenn Howard's tragic death, the Metropolitan police have implemented new procedures to deal with individuals with mental illness, which I welcome. Such measures, however, must be implemented nationally, not just within the Metropolitan police area.
It is worth contrasting Glenn Howard's case with that of another constituent who, after failings by the local authority and a local NHS trust, was placed, with no financial assistance, in a bed and breakfast. He left without anyone noticing and, tragically, was found dead from hypothermia on a local common. After a long battle, and with much sadness and regret, his family have been able to close that chapter in their lives because the local authority and the trust accepted that mistakes had been made, apologised in writingadmittedly, the apology was extracted after much delayand agreed an action plan with the family of the deceased. They have been able to monitor the progress of the plan; they can see that lessons have been learned from that tragic event and that measures have been implemented greatly to reduce the risk of such a sad event reoccurring.
That has not happened in Glenn Howard's case. Glenn Howard must not be just another statisticlessons must be learned from his untimely death and his family must have their confidence restored. I trust that in learning of the manner in which he was treated, the Minister will back my call for a public inquiry into his death.