Mental health groups have moved to distance themselves from junior health minister Paul Boateng's announcement that a review of the Mental Health Act will mean forced medical treatment in the community.
Mind accused Mr Boateng of 'jumping the gun' and expressed its 'deep disappointment', while the head of the group most prominent in criticising failures of care in the community has also voiced concerns.
SANE chief executive Marjorie Wallace said: 'We have always been and remain opposed to compulsory treatment outside a hospital or community setting - nor do we want a mental health system that increases coercion.'
However, Janice Miles, associate policy adviser at the NHS Confederation, welcomed ministers' intention 'to develop a legislative framework consistent with the development of mental health services'.
Announcing the 'expert scoping group' to review the 1983 legislation, Mr Boateng said: 'With our safety-plus approach, the law must make it clear that non-compliance with agreed treatment programmes is not an option.
'New legislation is needed to support our new policies, for example to provide extra powers to treat patients in a range of clinical settings, including, where necessary, in the community.'
The scoping group will be chaired by Professor Genevra Richardson, dean of the faculty of law, Queen Mary and Westfield College.
It is expected to take into account the government's 'policy intentions', the implications of recent case law and inquiry reports, and the views of service providers, users and carers. It will report to ministers 'by early summer next year'.
Ms Wallace said she was 'delighted' that the government had recognised the need for fundamental change in the law, but called for legislation to ensure 'positive rights to care and treatment alongside full safeguards for the individual'.
Judi Clements, chief executive of Mind, said: 'Anyone who imagines that compulsory treatment is an answer to the well-documented problems with mental health services is very misguided.'
She warned that compulsory treatment would drive users away from services. 'Professionals providing care and treatment do not want to work in a coercive way. It breaks their therapeutic relationships.'
Her view was backed by solicitor Peter Edwards, whose practice specialises in mental health law. 'It's incredible. We get a socialist government, and a Stalinist approach to mental health,' he said.
'I think there is a lot of hot air in the statements we are getting from ministers. It is a lot to do with appeasing the public - and the general public just want everyone who is mad locked up.'
But he said the emphasis placed by SANE on its opposition to compulsory treatment in the community was significant. 'It is a very measured response from SANE.'