More broken promises

Our campaign on child and adolescent mental health, Changing Minds:
Better Mental Health Care for Children, has focused on the urgent
need to improve the number and quality of services. The complete
omission of any specific mention of these services, both from the
draft Mental Health Bill covering England and Wales and the
proposed Scottish legislation, raises the question whether either
government can seriously claim to share the aims of our

There are certainly reasons for thinking that the Westminster
government would be sympathetic to these aims. A key objective of
its new national suicide prevention strategy for England is the
promotion of mental health among children and young people as part
of an attempt to reduce overall suicide rates by at least 20 per
cent by 2005. This makes excellent sense, but there is no point in
setting objectives, however laudable, in the absence of an
appropriate legislative and service framework. The government wants
to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds – a policy that must
come to grief.

For a start, the tenor of the proposed mental health legislation is
public protection. The main planks are compulsory treatment in the
community and the detention of people with personality disorders,
with little or no recognition of the special therapeutic needs of
individual client groups. In the case of children and young people,
the draft Mental Health Bill neglects even to notice their
differing social and developmental needs.

Worse still, independent research carried out for Mind reveals that
more than half of 15 to 24 year olds would shy away from medical
help for depression if compulsory treatment were introduced.

No wonder, then, that the Mental Health Alliance has condemned the
draft bill as “fundamentally flawed, unworkable and unethical”. But
the most remarkable example of the incoherence of government
policy, despite all the protestations about joined-up thinking, is
the decision to give courts more powers to remand 12 to 16 year
olds in custody. The move will inevitably lead to an increase in
prison remands, at least for children at the upper end of this age
group – even though they are notoriously vulnerable to suicide
attempts while in jail. Figures released by the Children’s Society
show that 8.5 per cent of children interviewed while on prison
remand had mental health problems, with almost as many attempting
suicide or self-harm. The case of 16-year-old Kevin Jacobs, found
hanged in his cell at Feltham young offenders institution, is only
the latest in a long line.

Section 130 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which
confers the new powers on courts, has been widely criticised. Once
again it embodies the government’s obsession with public
protection, regardless of the cost to individuals and no matter how
marginal the impact on crime levels. It is not going too far to say
that children’s lives will be put at risk, merely on the off-chance
that some joy-riders, small-time burglars and vandals will reoffend
unless detained. Many of course, will eventually be found

For more than 10 years governments have promised us a more
enlightened approach to children and young people in the criminal
justice system. Time and again these promises have been broken. The
UN, when it judges the UK’s performance against the UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child this week, will hear that there are more
young people imprisoned here than in any other country in Europe
except Germany. If this government is serious about achieving the
aims set out in the suicide prevention strategy, every minister
whose brief impinges on the welfare of children must come to
recognise that they need care as well as control.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.