With its sweeping driveway, impressive brickwork, state-of-the art gym and views over the rolling Oxfordshire countryside, Flint House could be the country retreat of a hedge-fund owner, or a plush hotel. Instead, it houses a little-known £4m-a-year rehabilitation centre for police officers suffering from physical injuries and stress. And it is looking to the taxpayer to pick up some of the bill.
Demand for places at the facility is soaring, and its waiting list is spiralling out of control. But the police feel that they are not getting the public support they deserve.
The centre opened its doors to The Independent on Sunday – the only national newspaper ever allowed inside – to convince people that its facilities and clients are on a par with the Ministry of Defence's Headley Court rehabilitation centre for veterans returning to the UK injured by IEDs – improvised explosive devices – and gun battles with the Taliban.
"They [the police] are the daily heroes on our streets," said the rehabilitation manager David Flint. "You see officers who've suffered knifings, shootings... things as impactful as what has happened to the soldiers [at Headley Court]. We need to raise public awareness of what we do, and awareness within the police force."
Statistics suggest that the average policeman is considerably safer than anyone serving in the armed forces. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, one serving police officer was killed in Britain in the year from 2008-09. By comparison, 109 servicemen and women were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
Nevertheless, demand for places at Flint House has grown dramatically, although the number of injured police officers has risen only marginally in recent years, from 3,174 in the year 2004-05, to 3,267 in 2008-09.
"Our waiting list has gone from two weeks to six weeks," said Lyndon Filer, the chief executive of Flint House, last week. "We've got planning permission for a £5m, 125-bed extension, but we also have to budget for half a million extra a year to fund that extra capacity."
The centre says it is struggling to cope. Despite a £1.14m government grant to fund an extension, police claim the state is not doing enough to support them when they are injured in the line of duty. Kevin Knight, a police officer from Coventry who has stayed in the facility four times, said last week: "If you are injured on duty it is like the soldiers being injured in Afghanistan. There shouldn't be a limit to what the Government does for people in that situation."
Originally, a Police Convalescent Home was opened in Sussex in 1890 by a wealthy philanthropist, and its latest incarnation, Flint House, accepts officers suffering from both physical and mental complaints. It has 14 full-time physiotherapists on site, and patients are expected to do two to three hours of exercise a day, including lower-limb strengthening classes, spinal mobility sessions and Pilates.
At any time, 10 to 15 per cent of residents will be suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. "It is the nature of the job," said Mr Filer. "It is a macho culture in which it is difficult for people to admit that they are suffering from stress. If you've seen so many horrific accidents – if you work in traffic, for instance – the hundredth one might just set you off."
The cost to the taxpayer of all this mental trauma is considerable. In 2008 police officers in England and Wales took 225,000 days off sick due to stress-related depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, at a cost to the taxpayer of £37m.
The centre is presently funded almost entirely by regular donations from 67,000 police officers. "There has been a real running-down of welfare services for the forces, which has been going on for some time now," said Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales. "It used to be that most forces had welfare departments, but that is not the case now. They are being left to their own devices when it comes to getting back to work."
David Hanson, the policing minister, argued that injured officers are well provided for. He said: "For an officer injured on duty, provision is made to give them a proportion of their salary ... right up to the age of retirement. For the most seriously disabled, this amounts to 85 per cent of their salary."
The Police Federation said any funding gap should be plugged by the Government or police authorities. "The centres assist the return to work of officers who are injured and sick, which is clearly beneficial to the forces and the public," Mr McKeever said. "You'd think it would be something police authorities and chief police officers would want to contribute to."
Spinal fracture: 'I realised I couldn't move my hand'
Andrew Jackson, 46, Inspector, Metropolitan Police
"On 5 January last year we were responding to a firearms incident when I was in an accident. I tried to brush something off my face and realised I couldn't move my hand. I suffered a C4-level spinal fracture, which is very serious. It was awful knowing my family would receive a knock on the door saying I'd been hurt. I got some feeling back in my legs quite quickly, and that spurred me on. What I've been left with is weakness down my right side, no feeling really of touch, and normal feeling on the left side. If I don't do my exercises I seize up. Since September I've been here to Flint House three times, and every time there has been a marked improvement. I walked in with my head bowed and walked out upright. Ten years ago I'd have had to retire."
Stress: 'I've been hiding it – there is a culture of that'
Trevor Leighton, 49, PC, Metropolitan Police
"This is my second week here – for stress. I'm doing relaxation classes and stress management. I just find myself frequently getting angry about little things. I'm not like that generally. I've been on medication since last March, but I haven't had any time off work. Last year I saw a girl trying to throw herself off a road across a motorway. She was hanging over the edge and I grabbed hold of her. If I hadn't caught her I think I'd have gone ga-ga. I've been hiding my stress – there is a culture of that. What angers me is that they do the PR stuff saying it's all fine, and it isn't."
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