Leading article: A bittersweet victory on mental health

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The Independent Online

The Independent on Sunday has won a battle in its long-running campaign against the Mental Health Bill. But we are far from winning the war. We do not believe that ministers have shelved the Bill simply because they accept the case that we have made against it, although it is to be hoped that we have given them pause. The reality is that mental health care remains a low priority for the Government and for society as a whole.

In our campaign, we have sought to draw attention to the scandalous state of provision for the mentally ill and to advocate better care and treatment for people suffering from conditions that are often poorly understood. There is an urgent need for a Bill that better defines the rights of patients and the responsibilities of their carers. What is not needed is a draconian power - that doctors do not want - to lock up indefinitely people with untreatable personality disorders. This was added to an otherwise well-meaning measure in response to media pressure after the murders of Lin and Megan Russell and of Jonathan Zito. Those attacks were committed by people suffering from serious mental illness, and there were undoubtedly failings in the systems designed to supervise them. But that cannot justify a law that allows the indefinite detention of anyone with a mental illness on the grounds that they may commit a crime. That would overturn a fundamental principle of justice. The danger to the public has to be serious, foreseeable, based on solid evidence and subject to periodic review.

It is now three years since the draft Bill was first published. It was entirely understandable that ministers would want to reassure the public in the wake of particularly horrific murders. But those cases were so frightening partly because they were so untypical, and powers in the Bill risked reinforcing popular stereotypes of the mentally ill as violent and dangerous.

There remains an urgent need for a Bill to promote better care of the mentally ill, but that goal depends crucially on there being better understanding of a subject still shrouded in prejudice. So far, ministers have been unwilling to amend the Bill further, despite criticisms from the pre-legislative scrutiny committee. The Bill's postponement is a bittersweet victory for our campaign, because, although a draconian measure is avoided, the cause of mental health has hardly been advanced.

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