Leading article: The vote for sanity

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The Independent Online

Mental illness is a subject that makes many of us feel uncomfortable. We would rather look the other way. Yet in nearly every family in the land, someone has been touched by some form of mental illness, be it depression, alcoholism or stress. We understand much more about mental health, and we know that in many cases the right choice of therapy or drugs can have remarkable effects - although we are often confused about what treatment, if any, is appropriate. Yet we are still fearful and easily swayed by panics over the small minority of mentally ill people who are violent.

It was to try to counter the fear-driven instincts of public opinion, which were driving Government policy, that The Independent on Sunday launched its mental health campaign five years ago. Our aim was above all to improve understanding, which was the best route to rescue mental health services from their neglected status in the NHS and to ensure better provision for mentally ill people. Since then, there has been considerable progress in social attitudes. The stigma attached to the more common forms of mental illness is lifting, not least because of the willingness of public figures to discuss their own experiences of bipolar disorder, the more accurate term for manic depression.

In the same period, the science of mental health has been better understood. The risks of cannabis use for a minority of the population, especially teenage boys, have become better known, forcing this newspaper to choose between its mental health campaign and its support for liberalising the cannabis law.

Public opinion, expert opinion and The Independent on Sunday have moved on. Yet there remains one focal point of resistance to change. The Government persists in trying to force through Parliament a Mental Health Bill that is stuck in the past. In concert with mental health charities, this newspaper forced ministers to amend and then shelve the Bill. But last year the Government brought it back again, containing the same illiberal measures that prompted our campaign in the first place.

The Bill was amended in the House of Lords to strengthen the rights of patients, especially against being detained for long periods against their will, and to ensure that young patients would no longer be dumped in adult wards. With these protections, the Bill would be a progressive reform of the present law. Without them, the Bill would make the present law worse than it already is. But the Bill returns to the Commons tomorrow and ministers have said that said that they will now try to overturn the Lords' amendments.

We urge all those Labour MPs who do not believe that the present law is bad, or that the Bill would make it worse, or who are tempted to opt for the quiet life of doing what the Whips ask them to read Jack's story that we report today. Jack suffered a cannabis-induced breakdown at the age of 16 and was detained in a ward for highly disturbed adults where he was assaulted by another patient.

We do not believe that ministers are ill-intentioned, but they are wrong. They are seeking to reassure us that we are protected from the likes of Christopher Clunis, who murdered Jonathan Zito in 1992, Michael Stone, who murdered Lin and Megan Russell in 1996, and John Barrett, who murdered Denis Finnegan in 2004. In each case, however, it was not the law that was at fault, but the incompetence of and lack of co-ordination between the professionals charged with administering it. There were no legal powers that the mental health services should have had, but did not have, to protect the victims.

The draconian powers that the Government wants to restore to the Bill are not needed to protect the public from that most terrifying of threats: the mentally ill violent stranger. At best, they are a distraction from the Cinderella of public service reform: sorting out management and systems in mental health services. At worst, the powers that the Government wants in this Bill will result in gross injustices being perpetrated on people who are unlikely to be believed. For most of us, the horrors of such a situation are accessible only through the fictional nightmares of Franz Kafka or Ken Kesey, but the first-hand account of Clare Allan, below, should act as a sharp reminder that such totalitarian anomalies are all too real in liberal democracies.

If the House of Commons rejects the Lords' amendments, it will be a disaster for some of the most vulnerable members of our society. But if the Lords' amendments survive, it will be a great step forward towards better provision for mentally ill people. Reject the old bill, bring in the new.