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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK

UK: Scotland

Wallace pledges mental health reform

MSPs return to parliament after the summer recess

Significant reform of Scotland's mental health laws has been promised by Justice Minister Jim Wallace.

Mr Wallace told a Scottish Parliament committee that action to plug a loophole exposed by killer Noel Ruddle, who was released at the start of the month, was just a start.

BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor reports on the bill to go before the parliament on Wednesday.
The Justice Committee heard a full-scale programme of reform will follow the review of mental health provision which is under way.

Mr Wallace faced tough questioning from the committee on the Scottish Executive's handling of the Ruddle affair, despite ministers' pledge to introduce a Bill stopping further releases when the parliament reconvenes on Wednesday.

Ruddle, who had been detained at Carstairs state psychiatric hospital since 1992, won his freedom after his lawyer told a sheriff court that treatment programmes at the hospital were no longer of any benefit to him.

[ image: Jim Wallace: New legislation]
Jim Wallace: New legislation
Mr Wallace said he received formal notice on 14 July regarding the background to the case. Ruddle was eventually freed on 2 August.

He dismissed assertions by MSPs that the authorities should have acted sooner and he insisted the nature of the loophole was only finally confirmed in August.

Scottish National Party MSP Christine Creech said ministers knew as far back as March last year that Ruddle would seek release.

BBC Scotland Home Affairs Minister Correspondent Reevel Alderson
She asked Mr Wallace: "We are now on the second of September this year, tackling emergency legislation. What happened from March 1998 until you got that minute on Mr Ruddle's case?"

Mr Wallace said that until the sheriff's determination on Ruddle was published, the Scottish Executive could not act.

He told the committee: "It was not until we actually had the terms of the sheriff's judgment on the second of August 1999 that it was possible to confirm that there was a loophole in the law and perhaps, more importantly, what precisely that loophole is."

Immediate release

Conservative MSP Phil Gallie demanded to know why the Scottish Executive had not sought to appeal against Ruddle's release once the decision was made, thus preventing his immediate release.

But Mr Wallace said: "An appeal was not open and that indeed is one of the provisions of the Bill.

He added that First Minister Donald Dewar and the Lord Advocate Lord Hardie has also discussed the prospect of a judicial review but the "unequivocal advice" given by lawyers was that there was no way to stop Ruddle's release.

Mr Wallace's pledge of future action came the day before the first full parliamentary session gets under way.

Barrage of criticism

His promise echoed earlier comments from First Minister Donald Dewar who pledged to put to one side the barrage of criticism which has dogged the parliament and to get on with the business of government.

The parliament's first few months have been marred by a series of rows over issues including student tuition fees, the cost of the new parliament building at Holyrood and MSPs' allowances.

But problems peaked for the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition administration with the Ruddle affair.

[ image: Dewar: Allowances debate necessary]
Dewar: Allowances debate necessary
On Wednesday, the Scottish Executive will publish its Bill obliging courts to take account of public safety before granting appeals for release.

All parties are expected to support the measures and Mr Dewar has urged MSPs to work in a non-partisan manner and to "briskly move ahead".

"We are trying to do an enormously complicated job," said Mr Dewar.

"One example was in regard to the legal loophole over the Carstairs issue, it was something that was not anticipated, it was something which was very much inherited.

"But the fact is we have to ensure that in plugging the loophole we get the right balance between civil liberties and reassuring the public. I think we have the right solution.

"I hope we can quickly move on to other areas."

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