MPs To Debate Bill On Compulsory Treatment

Ministers are facing the prospect of an embarrassing defeat over plans to introduce tough new mental health laws, as the leading charities and opposition MPs this weekend threatened to use full scrutiny powers to de-rail the plans. On Tuesday MPs will debate proposals to introduce powers of compulsory community treatment for patients who have stopped taking their medication. The plans follow revelations last week of repeated failures in the mental care of John Barrett, the man who murdered a stranger in Richmond Park, London.

Psychiatrists have opposed the measures, arguing that they will turn them into jailers, and charities believe that the much greater need for patients is to modernise existing care and provide proper 24-hour facilities.

The mental health bill – the government’s third attempt in eight years to reform the 1983 Mental Health Act – will be introduced into the Lords in a fortnight. However, the Conservatives said this weekend that they would ask that the Lords reconvene the original committee which was set up to scrutinise previous proposals along the same lines. If the bill is defeated by the peers, the government cannot force it through by using the Parliament Act because it initially introduced the proposals through the Lords rather than the Commons.

The new proposals, revealed last week in the Queen’s Speech, retain the draft bill’s plan to remove a legal loophole that allows people with severe personality disorders, previously known as psychopaths, to avoid treatment by arguing they get no benefit from it. Measures to extend the use of compulsory treatment outside hospital to patients in the community also remain.

The government says that allowing compulsory treatment in the community will help those caught in a ‘revolving door’ of relapse and readmission because they do not take their medication.

Health Minister Rosie Winterton said it was about getting the balance right between a patient’s rights and entitlement to treatment and public safety. She said: ‘The bill will help ensure that people with serious mental health problems receive the treatment they need to protect them and others from harm.’

But the bill is opposed by the Mental Health Alliance, a group comprising 78 organisations including the Law Society and the major mental health charities. According to the charity Mind, a more pressing demand is for community programmes known as ‘assertive outreach’ which would help to give people the support and aftercare that they need. They also want to see more 24-hour crisis services, which were promised in 1999 but do not exist in most parts of the country.

Several organisations representing medical staff also oppose the plans. Alison Kitson, executive director of the Royal College of Nursing, said: ‘We remain concerned about patients being required to have compulsory treatment after discharge from hospital. This could have a serious impact on levels of trust between mental health nurses and their patients.’