Published: 07/10/2004, Volume II4, No. 5926 Page 7

The Department of Health and the Home Office are to launch an investigation into allegations that a scheme designed to keep people with mental illness out of prison is failing.

Last week Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon launched an attack on the court diversion scheme at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting on mental health, attended by health minister Rosie Winterton.

Ms Lyon said that the 136 schemes across the country, run on an individual basis by primary care trusts, had 'virtually fallen apart' and that vulnerable women in particular were facing jail rather than receiving psychiatric care.

She said this could be one factor in explaining why the prison population has mushroomed from 60,000 in May 1997 to just under 75,000 now.

Later she told HSJ: 'Failures in early intervention, adolescent mental health, community drug treatment and mental healthcare and the lack of court liaison and diversion schemes have funnelled vulnerable people into our overcrowded, under-resourced prison system rather than directing them to the care and treatment they need.'

She said that rather than being seen as a place of last resort prisons are turning into a 'capacious social service expected to contain socially excluded people who have fallen through other public service nets'.

This week a Department of Health spokesperson said: 'There has been an unsubstantiated rumour going around that [court diversion schemes] have become less effective since primary care trusts took over responsibility.

'In order to make a proper assessment, the DoH and Home Office are jointly commissioning the National Council for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders to conduct a survey of all schemes, with a particular focus on women - whose prison numbers have increased disproportionately.'

Ms Winterton acknowledged at the meeting, 'there are too many people who have mental health problems in prison'. And she said the government would continue with its programme to move women out of special hospitals.

Court diversion schemes are one of a number of measures highlighted in the national service framework for mental health as one method of keeping people with mental illness out of prison.

The schemes aim to ensure that those with mental health problems get access to NHS mental health services if a prosecution is not appropriate. They provide defendants with access to psychiatric nurses, social workers and psychiatrists who can assess them and give advice and information to courts, police and probation services.

Ms Lyon said the lack of proper court diversion services could also be a factor behind rising numbers of suicides in prison in England.

In September the Home Office revealed that 14 men had died of self-inflicted injuries in August - the highest monthly total since records began 20 years ago.