MENTAL HEALTH Debate sees users, carers and professionals take on the politicians

Published: 10/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5942 Page 12

Over 350 people gathered last week to hear the Mental Health Alliance debate the draft mental health bill and argue for 'rights not compulsion'.

The meeting came as the Commons pre-legislative scrutiny committee heard its final evidence on controversial reforms to current mental health law, which were first promised by then health secretary Frank Dobson in 1998. The committee must report to the government by the end of March.

The alliance, which represents 60 organisations opposed to the draft proposals, held a day of debate on issues including compulsion, stigma and discrimination.

An audience of service users, carers and professionals questioned speakers, including mental health minister Rosie Winterton, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley and Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman.

Ms Winterton said having a proper legal framework in place for compulsory treatment of mental health patients would help reduce stigma, as the public would feel safer.

The government's draft bill proposes compulsory treatment of those judged a danger to themselves or others, with the option to impose compulsory treatment orders in the community.

But Mr Burstow said the bill's emphasis on protecting the public meant that if it became law it should be signed by a Home Office minister and not a health minister.

Mr Lansley argued that treating someone compulsorily for any reason other than a therapeutic benefit was a step on to dangerous ground. He said a Conservative government would ditch the proposals and swiftly publish its own bill.

The audience was also asked to fill in two surveys - a spoof hotelstyle questionnaire on the state of mental health facilities and a survey about the mental health bill.

After the debate, the questionnaires were put in a 'comments and suggestions' box and taken to the Department of Health's Whitehall offices.

The chair of Mental health charity Maca, Gil Hitchon, who chaired one of the sessions, said that in uniting psychiatrists, service users and carers, the government had achieved something unique.