Ministers to amend Mental Health Bill

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Ministers have backed down on proposals allowing people suffering from mental illness who have not committed a crime to be locked up.

Ministers have backed down on proposals allowing people suffering from mental illness who have not committed a crime to be locked up.

A rewritten draft Mental Health Bill, due to be published next month, will offer extra protection for the mentally ill in response to protests from psychiatrists, lawyers, MPs and patients. They have warned that the locking-up and forced treatment of the mentally ill would drive people underground.

The change in policy will represent a victory for The Independent on Sunday, which has campaigned for more than two years for better rights for the mentally ill.

The new Mental Health Bill was published in 2002 and included measures to detain psychopaths labelled untreatable who had not committed a crime. The measures were proposed by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to allay public fears after the murder of Lyn and Megan Russell by Michael Stone, a former psychiatric patient who is appealing against his conviction.

However, the proposals were condemned as unworkable, unethical and inhumane by the Mental Health Alliance, whose members include the Law Society and Mind. It is understood that, under the compromise being put forward by health ministers, psychiatrists would be given a "get-out" clause. They would impose compulsory treatment orders only if they agreed it was "clinically appropriate" and where people had a criminal record or had received psychiatric treatment.

Officials are also considering introducing community safety panels made up of hospital trust managers, who would rule on cases that had been referred on to them by psychiatrists. They are also understood to have dropped plans to use compulsory treatment orders in prisons.

Mental health charities and campaignersquestioned whether the changes went far enough in protecting the civil liberties of the mentally ill.

Paul Farmer, chairman of the Mental Health Alliance, said: "It looks like this will be better but we have to reserve judgment on whether it is good enough."

The reworked Bill will be assessed by a panel of experts who will publish their findings in March. This means the reforms are unlikely to become law before the 2005 election.

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