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Mental Health Bill on ice after avalanche of opposition

Exclusive by Lester Holloway

HEALTH MINISTERS have been forced to put the breaks on a proposed mental health law after experts warned it could become a disaster amid fears of an explosion in black people detained and medicated.

David 'Rocky' Bennett: died in the mental health system
David 'Rocky' Bennett: died in the mental health system

Health Secretary John Reid has been forced to delay the introduction of a Mental Health Bill until after the next general election following an avalanche of objections, Blink has learnt.

Conservative health frontbencher Tim Loughton told Blink: “I don't see this Bill coming to Parliament in the next session. The way it's going we're looking at after the next election. And that depends on who wins, of course.”

In a highly unusual move, health ministers have been forced to set up a pre-legislative scrutiny committee to pick through the mountain of concerns from experts who warn that the Bill is based on “prejudice, ignorance and fear rather than hope and recovery.”

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The Mental Health Bill has drawn fierce criticism from experts over plans to make it easier to forcably medicate and detain people.

The government want to abolish 'sectioning', which requires two doctors and a social worker to compulsorily treat and detain the mentally ill. Instead the government want allow a single hospital psychiatrist to make that decision.

 - quote - I don't see this Bill coming to Parliament in the next session. The way it's going we're looking at after the next election. And that depends on who wins, of course  - unquote -
Tim Loughton MP

Critics say that will make it too easy for authorities to lock up and drug anyone seen acting strangely. The Bill has also plans to widen the definition of mental disorder to “a disturbance in the functioning of the mind.”

Mental health campaigners fear this will mean it would be far easier for people to enter the mental health system if picked up by police on the street.

Black experts, already concerned over disproportionate numbers of Black patients in the system, suspect the new Bill could make the situation worse.

Department of Health figures show African-Caribbean people are over five times more likely to be detained in high security units and six times more likely to be sectioned than their white counterparts. Black people are also far more likely to be over-medicated.

Health Secretary John Reid: reflecting on another setback
Health Secretary John Reid: reflecting on another setback

Loughton, speaking to Blink at a Conservative function for Black media, indicated concern at the way the Mental Health Bill had been drafted, and said he understood the concerns of experts.

The Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of 60 mental health charities including MIND and SANE, strongly oppose the Bill. Faced with a united front of opposition, health ministers have been forced to cave in and subject the Bill to extra scrutiny.

Blink has learnt that the delays mean any legislation is unlikely to be tabled before autumn next year, and would not become law until 2007. Critics accuse the government of pandering to the tabloid media and public concerns about murders committed by the mentally ill.

 - quote - This is a racist Bill that will lead to considerable racial disadvantage for Black people in this country  - unquote -
Professor Sashi Sashidharan

The latest developments are a huge embarassment to the government, marking the second major setback to plans to toughen up mental health laws. Last year the government withdrew a draft Mental Health Bill after a barrage of criticism.

SANE fears the government's proposed new definition of mental illness is so broad it could include people suffering from epilepsy. A SANE briefing seen by Blink says: “This Bill will substantially increase the number of people liable to compulsion. This could lead people to be fearful of mental health services and put them off approaching services.”

The 1990 Trust, which funds Blink and is a member of the Mental Health Alliance, is submitting a report responding to the Bill. The report says: “On canvassing a number of BME voluntary mental health services on this issue it is clear that unless this Bill is changed black people will loose whatever trust they have left in the mental health system.”

Speaking to Blink in September mental health expert Professor Sashi Sashidharan said: “This is a racist Bill that will lead to considerable racial disadvantage for Black people in this country.”

In July the government published an inquiry report into the death of David 'Rocky' Bennett, who died of asphyxiation at a mental health unit in Norwich in October 1998 after being restrained by six staff for 25 minutes.

The inquiry, chaired by former high court judge Sir John Blofeld and which reported in February, reached damning conclusions over institutional racism and restraint. But campaigners have been angered by health ministers refusal to admit that the NHS is institutionally racist or embrace the Bennett findings.

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