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Mental health - new moves, dangerous precedents?

Home Secretary Jack Straw has unveiled proposals to lock up dangerous psychopaths indefinitely. It is hoped this will end the current situation where criminals are released after serving their prison sentence, even if they are judged to be a high risk to the public. Under current mental health laws people can only be detained if doctors believe their condition is treatable. New powers would cover anyone suffering from a severe anti-social personality disorder judged to be a danger to society - regardless of whether they have committed any crime.

The Home Secretary told MPs that short-term measures would be introduced to fill the gap while laws allowing indeterminate, preventative detention were introduced. An early warning system will be set up to alert police, probation and social services when someone still judged a risk is released from prison or a mental health institution. His proposals have, however, been attacked by, amongst others, Labour backbencher Tony Benn who said civil liberties could be at stake. In reply Mr Straw conceded it was a 'controversial and complex' area and admitted that introducing indeterminate detention was a serious step.

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health has said staffing levels in all areas of mental health are at crisis levels and that the new plans for psychopaths could make matters worse. A cross-country review shows that 71 per cent of trusts have problems recruiting and retaining psychiatrists while 85 per cent have difficulty recruiting nursing staff.

It is possible that Grendon prison in Aylesbury has caught the eye of Jack Straw in his quest to treat people with severe personality disorders. The prison, set up in the early 1960s, is based on a 'therapeutic community' model. Most inmates are serious offenders with a history of violent or sexual crime. They are expected to attend group sessions where they are encouraged to examine their past behaviour, to be tolerant of others and to be willing to help other inmates. The regime has been backed by Lord Woolf in a prison report.

BBC Online 15, 16, 17 February.

Forward to Scotland - committed to good health
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