For three years the 'IoS' has been fighting against draconian new laws that propose to safeguard the public by locking up mentally ill people who have committed no crime. Last week our campaign was vindicated by a committee of MPs and peers who have attacked the draft Mental Health Bill for laying too much emphasis on a tiny minority of dangerous patients. Sophie Goodchild reports

This newspaper's mental health campaign received an important boost last week when a distinguished committee of MPs and peers concluded that the Government's new mental health laws are "fundamentally flawed".

This newspaper's mental health campaign received an important boost last week when a distinguished committee of MPs and peers concluded that the Government's new mental health laws are "fundamentally flawed".

For three years, The Independent on Sunday has campaigned on behalf of millions of people who suffer from mental illness in Britain, yet find themselves at the mercy of a woefully underfunded mental health service. Filthy wards and long waits for treatment remain all too common.

But our main concern, shared by psychiatrists, patients and lawyers, has been a controversial measure to allow the detention of even more people who have never committed an offence - even if their conditions are untreatable. This is on the grounds that they may be dangerous in future.

Mental health experts have condemned the measures as unworkable, unethical and inhumane. And now, after examining hundreds of written statements and taking evidence from more than 100 witnesses, the parliamentary committee in charge of scrutinising the draft Mental Health Bill has concluded that too much emphasis has been placed on a tiny minority of dangerous patients. The harmless majority, it says, are likely to suffer.

According to the chairman, Lord Carlile of Berriew, a QC and Liberal Democrat peer, people could in future be detained "even though the treatment they receive does not help their condition and they can be detained compulsorily even if they are perfectly capable of making their own decisions".

The proposals would also have done little to prevent the sort of rare but terrifying murders recently committed by two paranoid schizophrenics, John Barrett and Peter Bryan. The publicity they received, with claims that one victim was cannibalised, has added to the impression that society has become more dangerous and that mentally ill people are to blame. Yet the figures tell a very different story.

Of the 900 homicides a year - an average for the past few years - only between 30 and 50 have been committed by people suffering from severe mental illness. Numbers have remained static since records first began, while the overall number of homicides has been increasing.

The majority of men and women who suffer from mental illness are not a threat to society and especially not to people they do not know. At worst, they are many more times likely to take their own lives than someone else's. "Stranger" killings remain highly unusual. Moreover, neither Barrett nor Bryan would have been stopped by the planned laws, say the campaigners. Psychiatrists already have the power to detain people who are considered a risk to society. These men were released to kill as a result of human error by no doubt over-worked professionals who failed to take into account the fact both patients had a history of violence.

The draft Mental Health Bill was heralded as the biggest reform of mental health laws for 40 years when it was published in 2002. But David Blunkett, the former home secretary, insisted it include measures to allay public safety fears after the murder of Lin and Megan Russell in Kent by Michael Stone, a former psychiatric patient. Stone recently lost an appeal against his conviction.

MPs from all parties have promised to oppose the legislation. The House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the Bill's definition of mental disorder was so wide it could put health professionals in the dangerous position of acting as "guardians of morality".

Ministers then revised their plans and narrowed the criteria under which people could be detained. Even so, the reworked Bill has many critics who say its scope remains too broad. Richard Brook, the chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, said: "We have a system which is not working, with completely systemic failures due to pressures. We have to have a system where people are seeking help. If you speak to users, people are worried about what will happen to them."

Mind is a member of the Mental Health Alliance, an umbrella group of more than 50 organisations set up to oppose the Bill.

The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, which represents around 1.2 million people with learning disabilities, said that autistic people and those with Down's syndrome could be targeted. "We are concerned that the wording is still too broad and it could sweep up people who have learning disabilities," said co-director Alison Giraud-Saunders.

There is no doubt that the existing mental health laws do need overhauling to enable as many people as possible to be treated in the community with the support of effective care teams. It is understood that the Conservatives, who have been blamed for the failures of care in the community, are now planning to unveil their own proposals, which place less emphasis on compulsion.

Campaigners have suggested that ministers should introduce a separate Bill that would focus on the tiny group of "untreatable" patients with dangerous severe personality disorders.

Paul Corry from Rethink, which represents patients with severe mental health problems, said focusing resources on a minority of patients to protect the public was not the answer. "There is nothing in this Bill which would have prevented these tragedies," he said. "But more resources would have. It's a recurring theme that someone in the system doesn't do their job properly, that papers do not get passed on, that people do not share information. Many patients seek help only to be told 'come back when you are having a crisis'."

Michael Stone

Victims: Lin and Megan Russell

Date: July 1996

Location: Chillenden, Kent

What happened: Michael Stone, a heroin addict with a severe personality disorder, killed 45-year-old Lin Russell and her daughter Megan, aged six.

What went wrong? Stone suffered from a severe psychopathic or antisocial personality disorder diagnosed years before the attack and had a long history of mental problems and violence but was not detained under mental health laws. Ministers use this case to argue that their new reforms would allow people like Stone to be removed from the community. However, it is understood that an independent report, which has never been published, casts doubt over their claims and instead blames human error, especially the failure of drug support teams to take proper action.

Paul Khan

Victim: Brian Dodd

Date: March 2003

Location: Prestatyn, North Wales

What happened: Paranoid schizophrenic Paul Khan killed grandfather Brian Dodd, aged 72. Khan, 34, had stopped his medication, taken his father's car from Cardiff and driven to Prestatyn. He stabbed Mr Dodd 37 times in the neck and head.

What went wrong? Khan had been branded a danger to the public seven years before the attack, and committed to a secure hospital unit after cutting the throat of a stranger. He was released after four years. After Mr Dodd's death, an inquiry found that Khan's care team had failed to invoke the "12-hour missing rule" when he did not turn up for a hospital appointment the day before the attack. Khan's parents also contacted the team to say he had disappeared, but were told to tell the police themselves.

Christopher Clunis

Victim: Jonathan Zito

Date: December 1992

Location: Finsbury Park tube station, north London

What happened: Newly married Mr Zito, 27, was stabbed to death by schizophrenic Christopher Clunis while waiting for a train. Clunis, aged 29, had recently been released from hospital into the community.

What went wrong? Mental health campaigners argue there were adequate powers under existing mental health laws to detain Clunis. He was known to be violent and carry knives yet not one of the 43 different psychiatrists who saw him over a four-year period had seen a full and accurate copy of his medical and criminal records. Clunis was discharged from nine psychiatric units in five years. An official report found that Clunis had stabbed at least two people and attacked several others before he killed Mr Zito.

Peter Bryan

Victim: Brian Cherry

Date: February 2004

Location: Walthamstow, east London

What happened: Peter Bryan battered his friend Brian Cherry to death with a hammer then mutilated his body. Bryan was sent to Broadmoor, where within a few days he had murdered fellow patient Richard Lourdwell.

What went wrong? Bryan battered a young shop assistant to death as early as 1993 and was ordered to be detained indefinitely. However, by 2002 a mental health review tribunal had decided he was safe enough to be released. On the morning of Mr Cherry's murder, there was an hour-long meeting to review Bryan's condition. He was described as "calm and jovial" and there were "no concerns regarding his mental state". Mental health campaigners argue that no laws, however draconian, can prevent cases such as these from ever happening again because human error will always be a factor.

John Barrett

Victim: Denis Finnegan

Date: September 2004

Location: Richmond Park, south-west London

What happened: Paranoid schizophrenic John Barrett killed former banker Mr Finnegan who happened to be cycling past at the time. Less than 24 hours earlier, Barrett had walked out of a psychiatric hospital.

What went wrong? The day before the killing, Barrett, a drug user with a history of violence and a string of convictions dating back to 1980, had checked himself into Springfield psychiatric hospital in Tooting, south London. He was subsequently released by a psychiatrist who had not even assessed him. Instead, she simply told a nurse by phone that Barrett could be given "ground leave".

Case studies by Jonathan Thompson