Brighton may be a traditional honeymoon venue, but for junior health minister John Hutton there was certainly no honeymoon period on mental health policy. His first public appearance in the job at Mind's annual conference in Brighton produced an immediately hostile response from delegates. And barely had the embattled minister made his escape to London than he was being blamed for the resignation of two members of the Department of Health's external reference group on mental health (See News, page 4).
Reading the text of his speech, Mr Hutton had done nothing other than restate the government policy set by his predecessor, Paul Boateng. So where did he go wrong? As the new junior minister has discovered, mental health is as difficult a policy area as it is possible to get. It was not what he said, nor even how he said it, but the number of times he gave the conference the same message. By all accounts, the thing that rankled most was his repeated assertion that proposals for compulsory community treatment orders were not negotiable.
In truth, the resignations had little to do with Mr Hutton. Mounting concern among service user members of the external reference group's sub- groups about the parallel review of the 1983 Mental Health Act, set out in a letter to Mr Boateng almost a month ago, make that very clear.
For though set up ostensibly to develop a national service framework, the external reference group was really a clever way of bringing on board a wide range of critics. Mr Boateng's false start in drawing up what was seen as a draconian mental health policy document behind the closed doors of Whitehall had angered voluntary sector and service user groups, and this was his attempt to end what was rapidly becoming a damaging situation for the government. What happened, of course, is that criticism was temporarily muted but the causes of it never went away.
None of which is to say that Mr Hutton now faces an impossible task. He can draw hope from the fact that the resignations so far are from the smaller and less influential mental health groups. But he will need to draw on all his lawyerly powers of persuasion to convince the bigger and more powerful mental health lobby groups that they should stay on board. And that may well require a little more compromise than the government has been willing to offer so far.