Leading article: A genuine attempt to help the vulnerable

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The Independent Culture
THE GOVERNMENT'S "Third Way" has often been just a vacuous phrase. In his proposals for care in the community, Mr Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, has gone some way to endowing the phrase with meaning.

Bulldozing the Victorian piles within which society incarcerated the mentally ill was an action born of the best intentions; their state was a standing affront to a civilised society. It was a very real achievement of the Conservative government that they began to tackle that scandal.

But the policy went too far towards assuming that release was the best cure for all. Combined with a lack of resources, this was a recipe for disaster. A series of high-profile violent crimes committed by patients released into the community rightly brought this to the attention of an anxious public. Last month an independent inquiry criticised a London local authority for not providing adequate back-up care to Michael Folkes, who stabbed his girlfriend to death after being released into the community.

Mr Dobson's ideas are mostly welcome corrections, providing more services to fill the gap between hospital and unsupervised release. To be effective, the drugs that have allowed many mentally ill people to live relatively normal lives since the Fifties and Sixties have to be taken; often the problem is that unsupervised patients forget this, and relapse. When Christopher Clunis stabbed Jonathan Zito on Finsbury Park Underground station in one of the most-publicised cases, he had stopped taking his medication.

"Outreach teams" will now be equipped to check on patients released into the community; more money will equip beds in hospital for that small number of patients who cannot cope on their own. Secure units will take those who are a danger to themselves, or to the public.

The Government should not go too far in reversing community release, however. The vast majority of released patients are no danger to anyone. Three-quarters of a million patients were released in the first five years of the 1990 Community Care Act, which accelerated the shift to care in the community, while 34 murders had been committed by patients within a year of release. Any murder is a tragedy; but there have been only a tiny number when weighed against the gains in humanity under the scheme. Mr Dobson has to be ready to help those released while still restraining those judged really dangerous.

"Care in the community" has too often meant "dumping in the community", with the most vulnerable people in our society wandering the streets in no position to fend for themselves. There can be no guarantee that Mr Dobson's measures will prevent further tragedies; government will need to match its fine words with hard cash. But for demonstrating his commitment to the mentally ill, for acting in a field where there are few plaudits and fewer votes to be won, Mr Dobson deserves our applause.