Leading Article: Lock 'em up - an easy mantra but a flawed policy

WE DO not have to subscribe to the grotesque tabloid fantasy of a nation stalked by hordes of psychopaths and child molesters to recognise the genuine concern that has been aroused in the public mind by recent cases like that of Michael Stone, who was jailed last year for the murder of Lin and Megan Russell. During his trial it emerged that Stone had told a nurse five days earlier about his violent fantasies, and had asked to be admitted to hospital. Because he was deemed "untreatable" he could not be admitted under existing legislation and was refused a place, with tragic consequences. The release of known "predatory" paedophiles who remain a danger to children after their release from prison also raised a legitimate concern. The Government was right to respond to the public's desire that "something must be done".

Now we know what that something is - lock 'em up. The Home Secretary wants to introduce a "third service" which will allow, in effect, the indefinite detention of people diagnosed with non-treatable personality disorders even if they have not been convicted of a crime. There is an obvious argument for those such as Michael Stone to be securely detained, although even in such apparently clear-cut cases, appropriate safeguards such as regular reviews need to be retained. "Third service" is not, in and of itself, an unacceptable proposal. What is highly doubtful is that the policy will be a practical success.

The effectiveness of the "third service" will depend almost entirely on the resources it is granted. Health professionals in the front line implementing the policy will be faced with an impossible task - to determine, on evidence that is often far from overwhelming, that an individual should be committed to secure accommodation.

One obvious factor is that some of those who ought to be placed in secure accommodation will not, like Michael Stone, be begging to be incarcerated, but will go out of their way to evade the attentions of the "third service".

Those who do find themselves being attended to by the new policy may easily be the wrong people. Mental health experts suggest that perhaps 10 per cent of all Britons suffer from a personality disorder at some time in their lives. That represents a vast range of genuine and distressing sicknesses. Mental illness is often intermittent. It is sometimes associated with great verbal but little physical violence. It is, in short, all too easily prone to "dustbin diagnosis" by hard-pressed professionals.

Our mental health service has long been starved of the resources it needs to care for those in the community, in hospitals and in prisons. To be asked to provide the third service with few extra resources is absurd. The Government is "doing something", but we should be clear that that something is unlikely to prevent future tragedies.