Leading article: An affront to human decency


We thought we had killed it off. Yet there is nothing quite so persistent as a mistaken idea. In this case, the idea of detaining indefinitely people who have committed no crime. The Mental Health Bill is back. Ministers have abandoned the idea of a wholesale re-writing of existing legislation, as the result of a sustained campaign of which The Independent on Sunday is proud to have played a leading part. For five years now, this newspaper has campaigned for better understanding of mental illness and better provision for the mentally ill. But the new Bill, which is being presented as a less ambitious attempt to reform rather than replace existing law, provides neither.

We would not accuse the Government of being so cynical as to time the publication of the report of an inquiry into a mental patient who killed a random passer-by for the day after the Queen's Speech in which the Bill was reintroduced. The reason we do not make this accusation is not, however, because we trust ministers but because the inquiry makes the case not for changing the law but for making the existing law work better.

The inquiry was into the death of Denis Finnegan who, when cycling through Richmond Park two years ago, was stabbed by John Barrett, who had absconded from Springfield mental health hospital, in south London. Its report was critical - as so many similar reports on similar cases have been over the years - of "seriously flawed" clinical decisions and inadequate management. "The trust knew there were problems and didn't do anything about them," it concluded. What the report did not say, however, was that the authorities lacked the legal power to detain Barrett. The criticism was that Barrett, having been detained, was allowed out into the hospital grounds, unsupervised, and was then able to walk free. The failures of the mental health care system in this country may be systemic, but legislation is not the answer.

At least, not this particular piece of proposed legislation, which takes us in precisely the opposite direction to that needed. Just when public attitudes to mental health seemed to be shifting in a hopeful direction, this Bill tries to drag them back to an obsession with the tiny minority of the mentally ill who are violent.

As we hope our news coverage demonstrates, mental illness affects almost every family in the country in different ways. We have recently given a platform to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former press secretary, to speak with commendable honesty about his experience of depression. We have praised Stephen Fry's consciousness-raising television series on the same subject, now increasingly known as bipolar disorder. Today, we report on the alarming rise in self-harming among girls and young women; this is related, in turn, to the anorexia-related death last week of Ana Carolina Reston, a model who reportedly lived on a diet of apples and tomatoes. We also report on the shocking conditions in Rampton mental hospital, where the improvement since the bad old days of the Victorian asylum has not been nearly great enough. And we report on the psychological pressures felt by top sportspeople in an attempt to improve understanding of the difficulties faced by Marcus Trescothick, the cricketer who returned home early from the Ashes tour because of a stress-related illness.

Against all this, the Government's obsession with being seen to act on the concerns of the sensationalist press is cowardly and dishonest. Instead of emphasising all the good work done by the Government and other agencies in dealing with the common forms of mental illness, it pretends that new draconian laws will deal with the failings of the system in atypical cases of patients with a history of violence. What is needed is better treatment for less serious cases, not least to prevent them becoming more serious cases, and better management of the small number of violent patients who pose a threat.

The new Mental Health Bill retains the worst features of its predecessors. It provides for the permanent detention of people who have not committed a violent offence if doctors certify that they might. In almost all the high-profile cases that have driven this panic, the offender has a history of violence. Even so, mental health charities accept that there may be a very small number of cases for which such measures might be fitting, but the Bill is drawn too wide and contains inadequate safeguards.

A new Bill is needed to give mental health patients more rights. The existing law on treating people without their consent, to take the most glaring example, is unsatisfactory. This Bill weakens the safeguards of patients' rights in significant respects. Working with mental health charities and concerned individuals, we helped kill off its predecessors. This time, we hope to have the support of David Cameron, who has taken a more enlightened view of mental illness than his Conservative predecessors. We intend to see this Bill off too. Meanwhile, we will redouble our efforts to widen people's understanding of mental health, and to persuade the Government to improve provision for the mentally ill.

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