For at least the last ten years, reform of the legislation surrounding mental health services has been under discussion. A number of Bills have been proposed and put before Parliament only to provoke a hostile reaction. We have another proposal before Parliament at the moment and more hostility.
Initially, in the early days of the New Labout government, it appeared that reforms would be liberal and informed by the need to reflect the shift to care in the community in the form that legislation took. It would, for instance, strengthen the duty to provide care etc. But to illustrate how fragile are the minds of ministers, one incident changed everything.
The double murder of Lin and Megan Russell occurred and a man, Michael Stone, was found guilty of the crime in 1998. It appears that he had an untreatable Severe Personality Disorder. Since he could not be treated, he was not in a secure mental health hospital. This one incident changed the tone of the debate. Now it became dominated by concerns about public safety rather than treatment. Subsequent Bills have all sought to grant powers to the state to detain people even when they can not be treated and before they have committed any offence.
There are two things to note here. First, it is not clear what a Severe Personality Disorder is and how they can be identified. Second, Michael Stone was convicted largely on the testimony of one man, a fellow prisoner, who said that Michael Stone had confessed to the crime while in prison on remand. The prisoner concerned since appears to have received a shorter sentence. The case is currently before the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of wrongful convictions in this country will recognise this case as fitting into a familiar pattern.
So has a debate on reform has become highjacked by a red herring? I would argue it has.