£500m 'squandered' on scheme to help dangerous prisoners

Experiment is branded 'unscientific and ineffective' as thousands of mentally ill offenders go untreated

Nearly £500m has been squandered on an experimental scheme to treat Britain's most dangerous offenders which experts have branded "ineffective", "unscientific" and "wasteful".

A new report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH) found tens of millions of pounds are spent every year on a few hundred offenders, many of whom will never be released from prison or hospital, while thousands of other mentally disordered prisoners are left untreated and thus more likely to reoffend.

The report, Blurring Boundaries, to be published this week, calls on the Government to "phase out" the programme, which has admitted about 450 murderers, rapists and other violent offenders in the past nine years. This puts the cost of treatment for offenders in the four dangerous and serious personality disorder (DSPD) units at just over £1m per person.

Research into the controversial DSPD programmes has been overwhelmingly critical as little evidence of psychological or social improvements have been found. Condemnation mounted after it became clear that it would be impossible to know if the multimillion-pound experiment reduces the risk of reoffending because the Government refuses to change the selection process needed to make proper evaluation possible.

Max Rutherford, the report's author, said: "The research we have so far is unanimous: after nearly 10 years the programmes are ineffective and some people actually get a bit worse. There is no risk to the public if the programmes were to stop today, yet tens of thousands of prisoners have no access to services which could help them and protect the public."

The controversial programmes were set up at Frankland and Whitemoor prisons and two high-security hospitals after the Government promised to "deal with the most dangerous offenders" in 2001. It followed a row when the former home secretary, Jack Straw, claimed that psychiatrists refused to treat Michael Stone, diagnosed with a personality disorder and convicted of two murders in 1996.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 prisoners could benefit from the programme, according to official estimates, yet the units – which cost between £200,000 and £300,000 per person per year – have never been fully occupied.

Early government research led by Peter Tyrer, professor of community psychiatry at Imperial College London, found disgruntled prisoners who spent only 10 per cent of their time doing anything resembling therapy. "Large parts of the money have been wasted, and such investment cannot be justified," Professor Tyrer said.

Other critics include John Gunn, retired professor of forensic psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry. "The DSPD programme was not launched because of a desire to help people with a personality disorder; it was all about locking people up," he said. "It has been incredibly expensive; hasn't made any difference to the public; no lives have been saved here and nor have any patients been helped. This was not a scientific response, but a political response."

A Justice Ministry spokeswoman defended the programme. Treatment is expected to last for three to five years and, since most units have been fully operational only since 2005, relatively few individuals had shown positive benefits. "We envisage this will increase during the coming year," she said.

Richard Charlton from the Mental Health Lawyers Association said: "While no one is arguing that those few hundred people don't deserve help, half a billion pounds is truly an extraordinary figure. This money would have gone a long way to helping the army of mentally unwell prisoners get on the road to recovery."

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