Jeremy Laurance: A flawed and discriminatory Bill that pandered to public prejudice

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The Independent Online

The draft Mental Health Bill was from the start unworkable, unethical and inhumane. The MPs and peers who last week concluded it was "fundamentally flawed" are to be congratulated on their unequivocal verdict.

The draft Mental Health Bill was from the start unworkable, unethical and inhumane. The MPs and peers who last week concluded it was "fundamentally flawed" are to be congratulated on their unequivocal verdict.

Since it was published in 2002, the Bill has generated unprecedented opposition from professionals, patients and the Government's own officials, as well as a three-year campaign by The Independent on Sunday. It united the church, medical and legal professions and patients' organisations in a unique alliance against it. After the coming election, ministers must re-think its most controversial aspects.

The Bill revealed the authoritarian instincts of the Labour Government, with its emphasis on incarcerating dangerous psychopaths. Ministers sought to capitalise on the public alarm caused by random attacks, such as those by Peter Bryan and the fatal attack on victim Denis Finnegan in Richmond Park last year, by proposing a heavy-handed law to deliver a safer service billed as the biggest change to mental health legislation for 40 years.

By focusing on the tiny numbers who pose a risk, ministers have helped to foster a treatment culture that places public safety above individual care. In doing so, they risk driving patients away from services and increasing the danger to themselves and to others - precisely the opposite of what the Government intends.

The most contentious element of the Bill was the proposal to detain people with dangerous severe personality disorder even though they had committed no crime. Are such people mad or bad? If mad, they deserve treatment, but if bad, who should be responsible for them?

If high-risk patients are to be detained to protect the public, then the key factor determining who is detained should be dangerousness rather than mental illness. But on that ground drunks and men who beat their wives should be locked up. People with mental problems commit a very small proportion of all serious violence and detaining them is discriminatory.

If ministers pursue their misguided policy, they will increase the risk of further tragedies.

'Pure Madness' by Jeremy Laurance is published by Routledge (£9.99)

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