Mental health tsar attacks draft Bill's 'hysterical' critics

Senior official hits back at those who have labelled the Government's controversial reforms as 'unfit for the 21st century'
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Professor Louis Appleby, the mental health "tsar", last night hit back at critics of the Government's controversial mental health reforms, labelling them "hysterical and absurd".

Professor Louis Appleby, the mental health "tsar", last night hit back at critics of the Government's controversial mental health reforms, labelling them "hysterical and absurd".

His attack follows the publication last week of a new version of the draft mental health Bill, the second in two years, which now includes new safeguards to prevent patients being unnecessarily detained against their will.

Under the new Bill, an individual with a serious mental illness can be detained only if they are at risk of suicide or of harming themselves or other people.

The proposals come in response to widespread criticism - led by The Independent on Sunday - of the Government's first attempt at reform, with complaints that the planned measures would have increased the stigma attached to mental illness, and would drive patients underground instead of seeking treatment.

However, the Mental Health Alliance, whose members include the Royal College of Psychiatrists as well as patient groups, said that the new Bill remains "unfit for the 21st century" and could still deter thousands from seeking the help they need.

In an interview with this paper, Professor Appleby, the National Director for Mental Health, said he sympathised with psychiatrists who had expressed concerns that the first draft of the Bill would force to act as "jailers".

But he also said many professionals supported the reforms, and he singled out the Royal College of Psychiatrists for criticism, saying that their views were not reflective of the majority of clinicians.

"Psychiatrists were concerned that they would be taking on a criminal justice role and I certainly empathised with their concerns," said Professor Appleby, who was responsible for drawing up the reforms.

"The Act must be of benefit to people and not just about locking them up. People are saying we are taking the clock back but we are not. If someone is not a risk they will not be detained.

"The Royal College of Psychiatrists believes that people should be allowed to commit suicide if they had the legal capacity. How many psychiatrists would agree to that?" he asked.

The IoS has been campaigning for more than two years for better rights for the mentally ill and has pressed for ministers to rethink their original proposals, which were published in June 2002.

Clinicians have always had powers to detain people who are a risk to themselves or to the public. But in the past, psychiatrists have often refused to detain people with severe and dangerous personality disorders because they consider them untreatable.

The original draft Bill sought to close this loophole in existing legislation by removing the "treatability test" to reassure the public in the wake of the murders of Lin and Megan Russell by Michael Stone. Stone had been discharged from a mental hospital shortly before the killings.

However, this attracted fierce opposition from campaigners, who said that too many people would be detained.

In response, ministers have added special safeguards to the Bill, which mean that psychiatrists can only detain people in cases that are "clinically appropriate".

Dr Tony Zigmund, vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the revised draft Bill was better than previous proposals, and that some concerns had been acknowledged but they were still not "satisfactory".

"Not only do I think our views are in line with the vast majority of psychiatrists, they are in line with our user group," he said.

"I'm not a traitor to democracy, but I do think such an Act would be damaging to the psychiatric profession and to patients."