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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK

UK: Scotland

Ministers accused as bill wins backing

The Bill stems from Noel Ruddle's release from Carstairs

The Scottish Parliament has supported action to close a loophole in the law which led to the release of mentally ill killer Noel Ruddle.

But Justice Minister Jim Wallace and Lord Advocate Lord Hardie have come under attack over the Ruddle affair, with the Scottish National Party calling for Lord Hardie's resignation.

BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor was in parliament
The Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) Scotland Bill seeks to amend current legislation exposed by Ruddle, who was released from the state hospital at Carstairs after arguing its treatment programmes were no longer of benefit to him.

With no other legislation available by which Ruddle could be detained, a sheriff ordered his release.

The row prompted a fierce political storm and allegations that the Scottish Executive had failed to act speedily to address the issue.

[ image: Jim Wallace: Under fire]
Jim Wallace: Under fire
The accusations were repeated when MSPs considered the emergency legislation on Thursday.

Mr Wallace was forced to defend the executive's actions amid stinging personal attacks from opposition MSPs.

But he stressed that the bill was necessary and would place a duty on the courts to put public safety at the forefront when considering the release of certain patients.

SNP justice spokeswoman, Roseanna Cunningham said: "The Scottish Executive has been found seriously wanting in its handling of the matter."

Ms Cunningham said the Scottish Executive was aware of the possibility Ruddle could be released but had failed to act.

She told MSPs: "They clearly did not consider that public confidence was an issue they had to address.

BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent John Morrison on the Bill debate
"They cannot have done so, else we would not have been subjected to the cack-handed handling (of the matter) that followed."

Scottish Tory Leader, David McLetchie, said Mr Wallace had shown a complete failure of political leadership and the affair had approached farce.

He said: "The whole Ruddle affair is a nightmarish Scottish version of 'Yes Minister'."

Call for support

[an error occurred while processing this directive] But, in response, Mr Wallace said he acted as soon as the loophole in the law had been identified and called for the support of the parliament in backing the legislation.

He told MSPs: "Without this bill and following Noel Ruddle's release, there is a risk that a very small number of mentally ill patients, some of whom have committed very grave offences, and are still considered dangerous, could be freed."

"That is why your support is crucial. Parliament must act now to change the law and to close off this serious threat to public safety in Scotland."

[ image: Lord Hardie: Targeted by parties]
Lord Hardie: Targeted by parties
The SNP and Tories later condemned what they viewed as a highly political attack on their MSPs by Scotland's senior law officer, Lord Hardie, who also spoke during the debate.

The SNP called on him to resign and the Tories accused the Lord Advocate of "crossing the political rubicon" in defending Mr Wallace.

A spokesman said: "For a government law officer to intrude into the role of a Labour Party campaigning propagandist- and not a very good one at that - has compromised the integrity and independence of the office of Lord Advocate and coloured him with all the dubious political baggage of a party hack."

Despite some MSP's reservations over the definition of "personality disorder" contained in the Bill and whether or not it conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights, it received support in principle from the parliament and is expected to become law next week.

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