Focus: Policy and Politics - Scottish Act shows way for rest of UK

Nathalie Thomas

Campaign for legislation holds lessons for English and Welsh charities.

Voluntary sector leaders in the field of mental health are meeting in Scotland this week to exchange policy ideas and experiences.

For mental health charities in England and Wales, the event couldn't be more timely as they await a government announcement about the future of mental health legislation in the UK.

The Mental Health Bill, which had been eight years in the making, was scrapped earlier this year in favour of amending the existing Mental Health Act 1983. The Government is now consulting on the best way to reform current laws, although voluntary sector groups have raised questions about who it is consulting.

The situation is much clearer north of the border. The Scottish Mental Health Act was passed in 2003. For many, it marks a significant step forward, and one the UK Government and voluntary sector groups in England and Wales can learn from.

"In many ways there is no doubt that Scotland has a piece of ground-breaking legislation," said Shona Neil, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health.

The association played a leading role in the Let's Get It Right campaign, a coalition of 65 organisations that succeeded in securing landmark amendments to the Bill.

Securing the right to advocacy for people with mental health problems is something Neil is particularly proud of. Other elements she urges campaigners south of the border to push for include a mental health tribunal and the right for individuals to make an advance statement about their treatment preferences before their health deteriorates.

But as mental health charities in England and Wales remain in the dark about what the future holds, what secrets can they learn from the Scottish campaign's success?

According to Neil, much of the Let's Get It Right campaign's success came down to the way in which it gleaned policy ideas directly from those who use mental health services.

"We had some fairly funky ways of consulting people," explained Neil.

"We had conferences in a marquee in a walled garden, and we held events for service users in settings that were non-threatening."

In order to gain an accurate idea of what the problems were, the campaign made it as easy as possible for service users to attend a consultation.

They created spaces where those who might feel agitated sitting in tight rows could get up and walk around, and set up video sheds in which people who were uncomfortable speaking out in public could record their ideas.

Neil said the rest of the UK could learn from what she sees as Scotland's mistakes too - particularly community-based compulsory treatment orders.

Her organisation questions the need for the Scottish Act's mandatory orders, saying that if good services existed across Scotland, problems could be spotted early without the need for people to be sectioned.

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