Revised Mental Health Bill is unfit for 21st century

8 September 2004

Today’s long-awaited draft Mental Health Bill will fail to match the needs of the 21st century, the Mental Health Alliance predicted today.

The Alliance, a coalition of over 60 service user and carer groups, charities and professional bodies, warned today that the revised Bill could bring mental health services to their knees. It risks placing many hundreds of people under compulsory powers, and driving thousands more away from services, for the sake of a tiny number of people who pose a risk to others.

Alliance chair Paul Farmer said: "We are deeply disappointed that the Government has still not listened to professionals, carers or people using services. Despite receiving 2,000 responses opposing its original plans, the Government has pressed ahead with many of its most disturbing proposals.

"The most worrying of all is that the Government’s way of defining who qualifies for treatment against their will is far too broad. This will force professionals to bring too many people in for compulsory treatment, damage the trust that is so vital between doctors and patients and lead to a bureaucratic overload on an already overstretched system.

"We are living in the 21st century and need legislation that reflects society’s deeper understanding of mental ill health and the vastly improved opportunities for inclusion and recovery. We need a law that respects patients’ human rights and avoids stigmatising them.

"Instead, we have a Bill that is rooted in an out-dated, false stereotype that people with mental health problems are a danger to society and are unable to make their own decisions about care and treatment. The revised Bill remains objectionable in principle and unworkable in practice."

Jason Pegler, campaigner and mental health service user said: "Those of us who, like myself, have had to use mental health services know just how important this legislation is. Service users need to feel that they will be understood, respected and treated with compassion. Making them feel that they are more likely to be punished for being ill will mean fewer people coming forward to receive the care they need, when they need it. This Bill could seriously violate innocent people's fundamental human rights."

The Alliance pledges to use the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny process to present its own proposals for examination by the committee of MPs and Peers.

Rowena Daw, policy lead for the Alliance said: "We look forward to the opportunity to put to the Committee our proposals that have the support of our large membership, of the previous Expert Committee, and which have been accepted in Scotland. Maybe then we may end up with legislation that is truly fit for purpose.

"The next Mental Health Act will need to last for decades. This new draft Bill will need careful scrutiny by those people who have to live and work with it. It is imperative we get it right."

Members of the Mental Health Alliance today spoke out about the new draft Bill:

Niall Dickson, chief executive, King’s Fund: "We have all waited too long for this legislation. Let us hope that this is not another wasted opportunity - this time politicians really must listen to those who use these services as well as the nurses, doctors, psychologists and all the other professionals who provide them."

Gil Hitchon, chief executive, Maca: "A glance at the Government's own figures of the additional workforce requirements cause you to wonder immediately whether there will be enough staff to implement the proposed new Mental Health Act. For example, the Department of Health calculates that only 140 advocates are needed, but unless their role is much diminished then it is going to prove very difficult for them to undertake their expected key role."

Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation: "Mental Health is everybody's business, yet here we have a draft Bill that stigmatises and marginalises people with mental health problems. The Government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use legislation to drive mental health up the political and social agenda and make mental health services more accessible and acceptable to those who need them. This draft Bill if it were to be become law, would represent a shameful step backwards since the 1983 Mental Health Act."

Richard Brook, chief executive, Mind: "We need a new Mental Health Act, that is a fact that cannot be denied. We need legislation that will provide an effective and compassionate 21st century mental health service. This Bill does not deliver that. It risks introducing fear and coercion into what should be a purely therapeutic relationship. It risks driving those who most need care and treatment away from seeking help as and when they need it most."

Cliff Prior, chief executive, Rethink: "This draft Bill lets down a huge constituency of service users and carers who want a new Mental Health Act that reflects the new realities of the 21st century, not the last century's prejudice, ignorance and fear."

Beverly Malone, general secretary, Royal College of Nursing: "The RCN believes that collaboration with patients, rather than compulsion, is at the heart of good nursing practice. Although we recognise that the Bill has moved some way to address concerns about enforced treatment, it is imperative that relationships with clients are strengthened, not damaged.

"We know that negative perceptions about mental health services can drive people away from therapeutic care and it is in the interests of clients, carers and families that this outcome is avoided. We will examine the details of the Bill in order to assess what are the likely consequences of its proposals - and in particular, what safeguards will be in place to protect clients from inappropriate compulsion."

Tony Zigmond, deputy president, The Royal College of Psychiatrists: "People who are capable of making choices about their healthcare should be entitled to do so. Those who are not capable should have the right to treatment that is in their best interests. These principles should not depend on the patient's diagnosis. The equivalent laws in Scotland respect these principles. The proposals in this Bill do not and are an affront to justice."

Angela Greatley, acting chief executive, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health: "The Government has once again proposed a law that will place psychiatrists and social workers under pressure to detain thousands of people and compel them to take treatments that do not benefit them. The draft Bill is now badly out of step with the rest of the Government’s agenda. It is incompatible with the Government’s efforts to tackle social exclusion; to promote patient choice; and to improve race equality."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, SANE: "We have campaigned for reform to achieve a better balance of rights between individuals, families and carers, and the community. But changing the law alone will not work unless we ensure proper care and treatment, which are still so often lacking. If we don’t make good the desperate shortage of doctors, nurses, skilled front-line staff and supervised accommodation, whether in hospital or the community, the new Mental Health Bill will not provide the ‘safe, sound and supportive’ mental health services promised when the government came to power. A major concern is that in the most critical situations, families and carers may still be left without rights to essential information that could prevent unnecessary suffering or tragedy."