The equality and human rights watchdog has been accused of failing to use a major inquiry to address concerns over the “non-natural” deaths of black men and women with mental health conditions in detention.
The campaigning organisation Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK) spoke out following the publication of an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into the deaths of people with mental health conditions who had been detained in psychiatric hospitals, police cells, and prison.
The report concluded that serious flaws within the mental health and criminal justice systems were responsible for the non-natural deaths of hundreds of service-users in detention.
But the 73-page report made only fleeting references to the issue of race, even though campaigners have been calling for more than 30 years for action to address the preventable deaths of black men in custody.
Apart from four mentions of the campaigning role of the human rights organisation Black Mental Health UK, the report only uses the word “black” once, and includes just nine mentions of “ethnic minority/minorities” or “ethnicity” and three of “race”.
When the commission launched its inquiry last June, Matilda MacAttram, director of BMH UK, said there was a need for EHRC to carry out “a thorough and objective scrutiny of the factors driving the disproportionate numbers of black people subject to detention under the Mental Health Act, as well as the lethal levels of force that have been used against this group, which have led to far too many high-profile preventable fatalities”.
She added: “The issue of the treatment of people in relation to race and ethnicity needs to be prioritised in this inquiry if it is to bring about the wholesale transformative change that is needed in many of the practices that take place in these settings.”
Only a few months earlier, in a Commons debate in December 2013, Conservative MP Charles Walker had spoken of being invited by MacAttram to attend a “gruelling” conference on deaths in custody, at which “many relatives of the deceased bore witness to their treatment at the hands of the state and of authorities that we should trust”.
MacAttram believes that that debate helped persuade the commission to launch the inquiry last June.
But she said the inquiry’s failure to place any focus on the deaths of black adults “could be seen as avoiding an issue that urgently needs to be addressed” when the “most disturbing fatalities are among this group”.
And she questioned whether EHRC’s decision to sideline the issue was “any different from the [failings of the] institutions that perpetrated [the deaths] in the first place”.
She said: “People we are consulting with are burying their children, so this is not something we can stay silent on… we can’t afford for it to be a cosmetic exercise.
“Given the genesis of this work, the omission of an acknowledgement of the need to prioritise the levels of coercion and lethal force used against those over-represented in the system is a concern.”
MacAttram said that, although the figures used by the inquiry did not show a disproportionate number of black people among the deaths in detention examined by EHRC, part of the reason could be that “some of the deaths of people in the system are considered to be natural deaths when the community do not believe they were”.
A spokesman for the commission said the inquiry was “not specifically conducted as a result of concerns around the deaths of BME [black and minority ethnic] people in custody”.
He said: “Many leading organisations working on mental health issues have welcomed the analysis by the commission’s inquiry and our recommendations to improve the care of all detainees with serious mental health conditions.
“While every preventable death in custody is tragic, the commission’s inquiry found that there was no disproportionality in the number of avoidable deaths of people from BME communities within the period covered by the inquiry.
“BME people are disproportionately represented in the mental health system and detention more generally and have longstanding concerns about this issue, which the commission agrees needs to be properly addressed.”