Leading article: Out of sight, not out of mind

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The Independent Online

Let restrained celebrations break out. When you have been banging your head against a brick wall for several years, the removal of the wall produces a pleasant sensation. The institutional obduracy of the Department of Health has meant that every time successive ministers were forced to reconsider the Mental Health Bill its worst features survived, to be fought another day. Last week, the Bill was finally abandoned altogether.

We feel entitled to congratulate ourselves - and the many people and organisations that campaigned against the draconian powers in the Bill. Pre-eminent among them was Marjorie Wallace of Sane, who writes on the opposite page. This newspaper's opposition to the Bill was central to our campaign, launched four years ago, to draw attention to the scandalous state of provision for mentally ill people in our rich and supposedly compassionate and tolerant society.

We hope that our campaign, and its success last week, should act as a rebuke to those who take a cynical view of newspaper campaigns as populist bandwagons designed to achieve objectives that can be easily attained. Mental health is a subject that makes people feel uncomfortable. Newspapers are generally not much interested in the policy questions of dealing with the prevalent problems of everyday mental illness. Hence the domination of coverage by the extremely rare cases of violent and especially homicidal behaviour. Hence, too, the skewing of ministerial priorities towards trying to reassure the public that such dangerous people will be kept off the streets.

It is that distortion of priorities that shaped this bad Bill. In their eagerness to tell people that they would be safe from the kinds of headline-grabbing murderers of Lin and Megan Russell and Jonathan Zito, ministers went too far. The Bill would have extended the powers of doctors to lock up patients who had committed no crime. The Independent on Sunday opposed this not only on civil libertarian grounds, but also because it would be counter-productive. Indeed, we accept that there may be a very small number of tightly defined cases in which it makes sense to detain people who have not been convicted of crimes. It may be possible to identify some violent predatory paedophiles in this category.

But the Bill was drawn far too widely. It could have allowed indefinite detention without good safeguards, in a way that could only too easily have been abused in an atmosphere where public opinion is fearful of mentally ill people. In a field where even professionals cannot agree on the definition of words such as schizophrenia, this was unacceptable.

Further, there was the problem that such powers could deter people or their carers from seeking help, thus making it more rather than less likely that dangerously disturbed people would be on the streets.

The ditching of the Bill is welcome, therefore. But our joy is bounded. The punitive and fearful impetus behind the Bill remains, amplified earlier this month by the case of Daniel Gonzalez, who murdered four strangers. But the lessons of that case, as so often, are not that more mentally ill people should be locked up, but that they should be better cared for at lower levels of psychological disturbance, and that warning signs should be picked up and acted upon.

We hope that ministers have been impressed by the unanimity of those who work with mentally ill people and that they will proceed with caution and precision in their continuing attempts to improve the old 1983 Act, which is certainly not perfect.

We shall remain vigilant, and shall press on with our unfashionable campaign to secure better and more humane provision for people with mental health problems.