Azara Blog: The UK government wants to lock up more mentally ill people

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Date published: 2007/04/16

The BBC says:

Ministers face a fight to get controversial new laws on detaining mentally ill people through Parliament.

The bill, which will allow people to be held against their will even if they have not committed a crime, has been attacked by the Tories as "punitive".

They joined forces with the Lib Dems and mental health experts to condemn the plan which they said would prevent sufferers from seeking help.

Ministers say the proposals will help keep the public safe.
...
In February the Lords voted against the idea of compulsion, saying treatment should be given only if it was likely to help the patient.
...
Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said the government had not learned the right lessons from a series of high-profile killings.

He added: "Countless inquiries into these homicides tell us that it's the services and access to services that makes the biggest difference - not changing the law."

But Wendy Robinson of the Zito Trust, whose daughter Georgina was killed in 1993 by a psychiatric patient, said she backed the stronger powers in the bill.

"So many people have died this last year, and over the last years, because no action has been taken," she said.

Tony Zigmond, a psychiatrist with 31 years experience and the honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the link between mental health and homicide was rare.

"The vast majority of people present no danger to anyone."

He added that those who did commit homicide "were not in contact with mental health services and had never been".

Health Minister Rosie Winterton has said that the bill "strikes the right balance between getting treatment to those who need it, putting in place patient safeguards and minimising the risk to the public".

Some of the arguments in the article make sense and some do not. The BBC claims that "ministers say the proposals will help keep the public safe". Putting it that way makes no sense. If keeping "the public safe" is allegedly the main goal of government, then you should just lock everybody up. (After all, anyone could be a criminal.) On the other hand, the government statement at the end about "balance" makes some sense (in which case the real argument is where the line is to be drawn, and government has made little attempt to justify that).

Paul Farmer makes perfect sense. The main problem with mental health services in the UK is that they were run into the ground by Thatcher, and Labour has done little to correct the situation. Mentally ill people have just been cut adrift and people seem to be surprised when sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

Wendy Robinson makes the wrong conclusion. It is the unfortunate "something must be done" attitude of the tabloid press, without considering whether what is being proposed makes any sense.

Tony Zigmund states that "the vast majority of people present no danger to anyone", which is true, but this is missing an important point. If 1 in N people of some (arbitrary) categorisation were known to go on to commit murder, the real question is at what value of N (and below) would it be ok for society to arbitrarily lock up all people in that category. Even N = 3 implies that "the vast majority of people present no danger to anyone" (i.e. 2/3). But if the real value was N = 3 then society could probably justify this draconian action. Needless to say, N is much, much higher than 3. Let's say N = 1000. Is it really ok for society to arbitrarily lock up 1000 people just because 1 of them is going to commit a murder? The only people who support this proposition are people who believe they will never be one of the 999.

And this is assuming that the mental health services would do a reasonable job in judging the situation. Does anyone really have any faith in that happening?

All in all, the House of Lords is on the correct side, and the government is not.

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