National liaison and diversion conference

Dominic Williamson

Today I was with colleagues in Manchester for the first conference of the National Liaison & Diversion Development Network. This event was an important milestone in efforts to improve responses to people with mental health problems and learning disability who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Following Lord Bradley’s report in 2009 the previous government established a programme of work within the Offender Health unit at the Department of Health (DH) to implement a number of the recommendations from the report. Revolving Doors has been involved in this work from the start, as members of the National Advisory Group and as a founder member of its successor the Bradley Group. We ran a national conference in 2011 where the then care minister Paul Burstow MP announced the government’s intention to proceed with the national roll out of liaison and diversion services. £50 million has been allocated in this spending round to support this programme.

At today’s conference Richard Bradshaw, the director of offender health at DH, explained that the commitment to this investment has always been made with the qualification “subject to business case”. Work on developing this business case is now underway and the lack of data from schemes is being addressed but the results won’t be ready within the original timescales.

Continuing political commitment from ministers continues to be strong, but we will need to keep a focus on this work to protect it from the pressure of cuts over the next months and years.

Alongside this investment, the DH also commissioned the Offender Health Collaborative (OHC) to establish the National Liaison and Diversion Development Network (NLDDN). The OHC is a partnership of six organisations: Revolving Doors Agency, NACRO, the Centre for Mental Health, the NHS Confederation, the Institute of Mental Health at Nottingham and CASS Business school. Together we will work with existing and new schemes to develop good practice standards, improve commissioning and develop the workforce. A new website to support the work was launched today:

Graham Beech from NACRO, who chaired today’s event, explained that while criminal justice liaison and diversion services have been around for years there has never been an agreed national definition. Services calling themselves CJLD differ in many respects; some are multidisciplinary teams which cater for a wide range of client groups whereas others are small services targeting people with a severe mental illness. Forming a consensus around a definition is important for the programme going forward and this is one of the first tasks of the NLDDN. A “working definition” is being published today and will be available on the NLDDN website shortly.

The government has accepted that liaison and diversion is only part of what the system needs to look like in local areas. As we know, the majority of people caught up in the system have lower level mental health problems or learning difficulties usually alongside a range of other psychological and social problems. The question for this group, those with multiple and complex needs, is: diversion to what? The DH has begun to invest in a number of “alternatives” including some of the services we have helped to establish over the years, such as the Warrington service. Professor Louis Appleby, the national clinical director for health and criminal justice, talked about several of these schemes including the project we helped establish in the Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham.

A lot of good practice has been developed in the existing youth diversion sites. Kate Morris from the Youth Justice board emphasised that within the government’s vision of an “all age” diversion service, the focus and expertise built up in the existing youth diversion sites mustn’t be lost.

Professor Eddie Kane from the Institute of Mental Health at Nottingham University set out the findings from a narrative review of the evidence around CJLD. While there is a paucity of research in this field there is some evidence from the UK and international studies. This review will be available on the website shortly.

With practitioners, commissioners and policymakers coming together this conference was a strong start for the development network. Over the next three years alongside the promised investment this programme has the potential to greatly improve opportunities for people with unmet mental health and learning disability needs who would otherwise find themselves caught in the revolving door of crisis and crime.