The government has been warned that delays in issuing its national service framework for mental health risk making it irrelevant.

A draft framework - which was due to be launched in April - is now 'at its final stages' but has yet to be agreed by junior health minister John Hutton.

An external reference group chaired by Professor Graham Thornicroft of the Institute of Psychiatry reported in January.

Last week, his colleague Professor Martin Knapp said the framework was in its '19th draft since then'.

Dr Matt Muijen, director of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, warned that delays increased the risk of the framework becoming an 'irrelevance' to local services.

Services had been left to 'make it up as they go along' - often in 'innovative and imaginative ways', said Dr Muijen.

'If it is too late, people will begin to question why we need a framework in the first place.'

The policy focus on personality disorders and the Mental Health Act review were 'distractions for those working in the field, who are all waiting for the national service framework'.

National Schizophrenia Fellowship chief executive Cliff Prior, chair of the external reference group's long-term care group, said delays created 'a problem of planning blight where people are waiting to see what they should be working on and what the priorities will be'.

But he said a few weeks' delay was neither 'here nor there' and the important thing was to 'get the framework right'.

Centre for Mental Health Services Development director Edward Peck said he did not 'anticipate that much of (the framework) would be recognisable from the version produced by the external reference group'.

He said: 'I have some sympathy with the Department of Health. The document they were given was very long and the product of a number of different views.'

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