Lauren lives in her own filth, locked in an airless room, often naked, always alone. Her treatment in an NHS hospital shames us all

Her only crime is to be mentally ill. Staff at Rampton Hospital do not know what else to do with her. What has happened to this young woman should be read by every MP before voting on the new Mental Health Bill. By Sophie Goodchild
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Lauren Owen is not a criminal, she is mentally ill. But for more than a year, this young woman, who has learning difficulties, has been kept locked in a cell-like room, deprived of fresh air and often left completely naked.

A cardboard bedpan serves as her toilet and it is passed through the hatch in the door. Food and drink are also passed to her through the same hatch, which is sometimes smeared with her faeces.

Rampton Hospital, where she is a patient, say locking her up is the best care it can offer women like Lauren, a victim of sexual abuse who repeatedly self-harms and does not respond to drugs.

But campaigners say her "appalling" treatment highlights the human rights abuses of psychiatric patients in Britain, abuses they warn will escalate with the introduction of draconian new laws.

Last Friday, the Government published the latest version of its Mental Health Bill, which ministers say will close an "unacceptable gap" in existing mental health laws. The announcement was deliberately timed to coincide with the publication of a report into the murder of a cyclist by a mental health patient.

The inquiry concluded that there were serious failings in the care of John Barrett, who killed Denis Finegan in Richmond Park in London. Rosie Winterton, the health minister, used the case to justify the measures in the Bill that extend the use of forcing patients into treatment and increase psychiatrists' power to detain people previously considered untreatable.

But the Bill has been condemned as "deeply flawed" and "not fit for the 21st century" by the Law Society, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and charities, including Rethink.

Two earlier drafts were ditched after psychiatrists said it was geared too much towards protecting the public and not towards patient care. Opponents say ministers have still failed to listen to their concerns and that the latest measures will lead to a big rise in the number of people who have committed no crime being detained against their will. The reality is that of the murders committed in Britain, only a handful are carried out by mental health patients.

The mental health charity Mind pointed out that the Barrett inquiry did not conclude that new legislation would protect the public from people with severe psychiatric disorders.

The charity said money had to be spent on providing the care that people, especially those living in the community, desperately need and not on sweeping people up into compulsory treatment.

"Cases like that of John Barrett highlight the real problems that need addressing: system failure, poor communication and/ or human error, often resulting from understaffed and overworked services," said a spokesperson.

Treatment for mental health patients has always been low on the priority list and has been dubbed "the Cinderella service" of the NHS. There is also a worrying trend in trusts diverting funds away from psychiatric services into areas such as acute surgery to overcome funding crises.

Figures published last month revealed that patients face waiting lists of more than 18 months to get therapy for depression and anxiety in some parts of the country.

A survey of NHS trusts found that more than 100 primary care trusts (PCTs) are struggling to cope with the backlog of people desperate for treatments that include counselling and cognitive therapy.

More than 90 per cent of trusts have waiting lists of over a year for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and more than three-quarters have waiting lists of three months or more for all psychological therapies.

Patients in Yorkshire have to wait longer than anywhere else in the country for CBT, a treatment proven to help relieve low-level depression and anxiety. There is also a significant north-south divide in the availability of CBT. In parts of Cornwall and Suffolk the wait is three weeks or less.

Ministers face a potential defeat when the Bill is introduced. Opposition parties told The Independent on Sunday they are threatening to "rough up" the legislation through a string of amendments, including the use of special advocates to protect patients, a safeguard that was dropped from the Bill "out of spite".

Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP on a parliamentary mental health committee, said that despite seven years of consultation the Government had still not listened to the mental health lobby. "This is seriously going to harm the trust between patients and practitioners. It will deter people from seeking treatment and drive them underground. They are broad-brushing everyone with coercion."

Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, added that the criminal justice system should be used for offenders deemed to be a risk, not a Bill intended to protect rights.

"The Government seems to be proceeding on the basis that legislation can be written in a way to define this label of severe dangerous personality disorder. If someone has not committed a crime, it's extremely difficult to assess the degree of risk that someone poses."

Dr Ian Gibson, a Labour MP, said: "While there will always be a small number that need to be in special clinics, the far greater problem is ensuring that people get the treatment they need."

In the case of Lauren, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, there was not adequate treatment for her in the community, which is why she ended up in Rampton, in Nottinghamshire. Now in her early twenties, she suffered a breakdown while living in supervised accommodation. It is understood that her lawyers have applied to a mental health review tribunal to have her moved to a room that has a special suite which allows her direct access to a bathroom. Sources say her condition has seriously deteriorated since coming to Rampton.

There are more than 10 people locked up like Lauren in "seclusion" from other patients in secure hospitals such as Broadmoor, Rampton and Ashworth.

Official guidelines state hospitals should not keep patients without clothes or keep them locked up for long periods. But a recent House of Lords ruling allows them to disregard the guidelines in "exceptional cases". And it is very easy to label a patient a "special case" when staff are overstretched.

The Mental Health Act Commission (MHAC), the watchdog that monitors the treatment of psychiatric patients, says the use of seclusion is on the increase.

"Imagine if you have been locked up for hours on end with no en suite facilities. It is against people's human rights and I think people would be horrified about these cases, but mental health services are seriously underfunded," said Suki Desai, a regional director from the MHAC.

In a statement, Rampton said it did not comment on individual patients but that it puts patients in seclusion when they pose a "serious risk to themselves or others" and that the process is carefully monitored within national guidelines.

"Seclusion is never used as a punishment and is seen as a last resort ... some patients respond less well to the treatment and care we provide, and their behaviours have to be managed."

Rampton is in the process of building a new unit, which will care for 50 women. But campaigners say this is too little, too late, and that the needs of female patients often come second to those of men because they are in the minority. This means that resources are eaten up with providing secure accommodation geared to male patients, with women forced to languish on Victorian wards that are not fit for purpose.

One source, who works at a secure hospital, told the IoS: "Women do not have equal access to facilities as men. Some women in seclusion do not have access to proper sanitation, for example. I would not keep an animal like that, and if I did I would be prosecuted."

Kevin Lloyd, a lawyer who is mounting a legal challenge against the use of seclusion, said depriving patients of their human rights was "appalling", and that Britain was regressing to the days of the "old asylums".

"It's utterly inappropriate for people with learning disabilities to be kept like this," said Mr Lloyd.

"Things have undoubtedly got worse and it's a step back for mental health. Just because people are detained under the Mental Health Act doesn't mean they should be denied their human rights."

Additional reporting by Jonathan Owen

OPINION: Alex Carlile, Lib Dem peer

"There are still far too many people with mental illness ending up in prisons, and that is completely unacceptable. I don't believe this Mental Health Bill demonstrates more than some earnestness on the part of the Government to improve the situation.

"Most people with a diagnostically recognised mental illness get better if given the right treatment ... In every part of the country you can find an orthopaedic surgeon who is qualified to treat your particular orthopaedic injury. In many parts of this country, there are not therapists qualified to treat different types of mental illness.

"A very large number of mentally ill people die of their illness, often at their own hands. There is still a huge stigma attached to it and it's extremely difficult for charities involved with mentally ill people to raise large sums of money compared with children's charities, so patients are very much at the hands of government funding. It remains a poor relation.

"The other thing that worries me about this Bill is that it contains a much wider provision for community treatment orders than our select committee ever envisaged as appropriate.

"The additional public sector costs are estimated to be approximately £22m in the first full year of implementation, about £10m for the amendments to the 1983 Act and £12m for amendments to the Mental Capacity Act. These costs will rise after six years. An extra £22m is very little in this field. It is not putting in real money.

"They say most of the costs are going to arise from issues including supporting people in the community. This is the second spectre. It is the spectre of widespread community treatment orders involving far more people being sectioned than was ever the case under the 1983 Act ... The danger is that people who want to look for help become ever more afraid of being sectioned and so will not look for help."

Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, a Liberal Democrat peer, chaired the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Mental Health Bill. He was talking to Sophie Goodchild

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