SIX hundred people feared to be mentally ill in Hampshire have been locked up in police cells in the past year.

Chief Inspector Paul Bartolomeo, of Hampshire Constabulary, said police officers detained on average three people a day under the Mental Health Act, including some “on top of buildings and bridges.”

About 900 people a year were taken somewhere secure because of fears for their own safety or public safety.

But only a third were taken to hospital, while the rest were detained in police stations despite national guidelines stating custody should be a last resort.

Now Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which is responsible for mental heath services, is developing an improvement plan together with Hampshire County Council and Hampshire Constabulary .

Guidance from the Royal College of Physicians say police cells should only be used to house people with mental illness under exceptional circumstances. In Hampshire, the number of NHS facilities where police can take people has been reduced to five with the closure of Woodhaven acute mental health unit in Calmore last July. Chief Insp Bartolomeo said “challenges” included the availability of suitable alternatives to police cells and long waits for assessment by a doctor and social worker.

Speaking at the county council's health overview and scrutiny committee, he said: “We don't want to see anyone detained under the Mental Health Act in police stations.”

He said sometimes two police officers could be sat outside cells watching to check a mentally ill person did not hurt or kill themselves.

Dr Lesley Stevens, clinical director of SHFT, admitted: “Clearly it is not appropriate taking these people to a police station. They have not committed a crime. They are distressed.”

People in custody should be assessed within two to three hours but in Hampshire the average wait is 10 hours.

Some 70 per cent of people detained under the Mental Health Act arrive at police stations out-of-hours.

Yet there is only one social worker, or approved mental health professional, to cover the whole of Hampshire at night and four consultant psychiatrists on-call, councillors were told.

Dr Stevens said it could be “difficult and a challenge” to get doctors up at night after they had worked all day.

Improvement plans include looking at the out-of-hours staffing rota and location of NHS places of safety.

Jason Brandon, mental health social work development manager for the county council, said figures in recent months showed a gradual improvement with about half of people detained under the Mental Health Act taken to hospital but he admitted there was still “a tremendous way to go.”

Speaking after the meeting, he said there were no plans to recruit extra social workers but some might be deployed to improve cover at night.