Although some mental health pressure groups have been urging the Government to set up an 'active' register of people suffering severe mental illness, the new measure received only a qualified welcome. The main criticism was that a register, expected to include at least 3,000 people, would be pointless unless accompanied by an increase in resources for psychiatric care. There was also concern for the its civil liberties implications.
The register - modelled on the children's 'protection' register - is regarded by Mrs Bottomley as a key element in her department's revision of mental health policy.
As well as the risk register, she is expected to issue guidance on the discharge of psychiatric patients, with the House of Commons changing current laws next year to bring in a category of 'supervised discharge'.
Mrs Bottomley said yesterday: 'It is vital not to lose touch with seriously mentally ill people living in the community. To do that it is vital to have up-to-date, accurate lists of those at risk.' From April health authorities will have to ensure that lists are drawn up and maintained.
In the 1950s there were 150,000 people in mental hospitals. Changes in the clinical treatment of the mentally ill, and the Government's policy of care in the community, have cut that to 50,000.
Anyone with a diagnosed serious mental illness, regardless of whether they have been in a psychiatric hospital, will be included on the register. Mrs Bottomley said it was important to keep in touch with people who found it difficult to keep appointments or whose condition could deteriorate rapidly, leaving them at risk.
Pressure on the Government to tighten its supervision of the mentally ill has increased recently following incidents involving former psychiatric patients. Almost a year ago Ben Silcock, a schizophrenic, jumped into the lions' den at London Zoo. In another incident, a paranoid schizophrenic, Christopher Clunis, stabbed a musician to death.
Although Mrs Bottomley gave details of an extension of local authority grants for mental illness and funding for some new projects, the mental health charity Sane urged her to announce a moratorium on the closure of psychiatric hospitals.
Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of Sane, said: 'We don't feel what has been proposed is a workable solution. At present we get dozens of urgent calls every week. In one case we tried to assist a young man who had set fire to himself. He was turned away from three hospitals; one stating there were no psychiatric beds, and another that he was not at risk. A list on its own, without the availability of psychiatric beds, is meaningless.'
Bob Abberley, of the health union Unison, said that he was concerned about the civil liberties implications. 'It is not a question of identifying people, but of giving them the appropriate resources. This sounds like a panic response to the crisis in community care.'