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Monday, 11 November, 2002, 13:13 GMT
Mental health rights fears
A draft Mental Health Bill is out for consultation
The proposals have prompted widespread concern
The government has been warned that proposals in its Draft Mental Health Bill could infringe the human rights of patients.

The joint House of Commons and House of Lords committee on Human Rights say they have "serious reservations" about some aspects of the draft measures which would in general improve safeguards on the human rights of patients.

The draft plans have proved controversial - hundreds of protesters marched to lobby their MPs last month, focusing on two proposals contained in the draft bill:

  • mentally ill people living in the community should be forced to take their medication
  • the detention of dangerous people with severe personality disorders even if they have not committed a crime

The MPs and peers say the planned Code of Practice would not "sufficiently safeguard the autonomy, dignity and physical and moral integrity of patients in the decision making process".

Nazi Germany and USSR

Concern is also expressed that the definitions of a mental disorder and medical treatment are too broad.

This could lead to "the compulsory detention... of people for the protection of others when the people detained have never been charged with any criminal office and nothing can be done to alleviate the mental disorder from which they are suffering".

The committee says "this raises human rights issues, flowing mainly from the breadth of circumstances in which a patient could be subjected to compulsory, non consensual treatment".

The history of the 20th Century demonstrated that psychiatry is capable of being abused

Committee report

They also raise worries that part of current laws which prevents detention "by reason of promiscuity or other immoral conduct, sexual deviancy or dependence on drugs or alcohol" has been omitted from the bill.

The report explains: "The history of the 20th Century demonstrated that psychiatry is capable of being abused.

"Nazi Germany and the USSR were probably not the only countries in which socially or politically unacceptable behaviour was regarded as a manifestation of a 'disorder of the mind'."

Ministers say the bill needs to be updated to protect the public.

But the campaigning group, the Mental Health Alliance (MHA), says the proposals, which would apply in England and Wales, are fundamentally flawed, and would turn doctors into jailers.

Public pressure

Tony Blair last month, acknowledged that argument, but added there was public pressure to introduce tight rules for treating people with severe mental disorders.

NOP research for the mental health charity Mind carried out in September suggested more than one in three people would be deterred from seeking help from their GP for depression if the proposed new laws were passed.

Ministers have consulted the public and are currently examining the responses before deciding whether the bill should be included in the Queen's Speech this Wednesday.

Mr Blair told MPs last month that the Department of Health had received 2,000 submissions to date in response to its consultation.

The committee's report adds that they were pleased by the "positive and constructive" response their concerns had received, adding they were "confident that it will be reflected in the way that the planned legislation is drafted for introduction to Parliament".

Experts' reaction

The Mental Health Alliance urged the government to act on the findings of the report.

Alliance chair Paul Farmer said: "The Alliance has warned all along that the Bill will not comply with the Human Rights Act.

"We welcome the committee's findings and share their concerns that the draft Mental Health Bill could be a threat to human rights, especially the widening of treatment criteria for mental illness.

"We urge the government to listen to the Committee's findings and the Alliance's concerns, and produce mental health legislation fit for the 21st century."


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See also:

04 Oct 01 | Health
13 Aug 02 | Health
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