Is there something to hide in the Mental Health Act white paper?

Any major government initiative whose launch takes place a few days before Christmas ought to attract suspicion. Either it contains something ministers do not want scrutinised too closely or it has been hastily thrown together to meet earlier promises to publish before the year's end.

In the case of the white paper on reforming the Mental Health Act - released on 20 December - the former applies. What health secretary Alan Milburn claims as 'the biggest shake-up in mental health laws in four decades' is a little compromised by its flirtation with popular prejudice - which perhaps owes more to the Home Office than the Department of Health. Mr Milburn rightly said that reducing the stigma of mental illness 'should be a priority for any caring, civilised society'; despite much to welcome in the document, the proposed powers of compulsory treatment and detention do little to further that cause.