The Government has established a shadowy new national anti-terrorist unit to protect VIPs, with the power to detain suspects indefinitely using mental health laws.
The revelation is set to reignite the row over the Government’s use of draconian measures to deal with terror suspects amid accusations they are abusing human rights.
The Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (FTAC) was quietly set up last year to identify individuals who pose a direct threat to VIPs including the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Royal Family.
It was given sweeping powers to check more than 10,000 suspects’ files to identify mentally unstable potential killers and stalkers with a fixation against public figures.
The team’s psychiatrists and psychologists then have the power to order treatment – including forcibly detaining suspects in secure psychiatric units.
Using these powers, the unit can legally detain people for an indefinite period without trial, criminal charges or even evidence of a crime being committed and with very limited rights of appeal.
Until now it has been the exclusive decision of doctors and mental health professionals to determine if someone should be forcibly detained.
But the new unit uses the police to identify suspects – increasing fears the line is being blurred between criminal investigation and doctors’ clinical decisions.
It also raises questions about why thousands of mentally ill individuals have been allowed back into the community – including some who have attacked and killed members of the public – while VIPs are being given special protection.
Scotland Yard, which runs the shadowy unit, refuses to discuss how many suspects have been forcibly hospitalised by the team because of “patient confidentiality”.
But at least one terror suspect – allegedly linked to the 7/7 bomb plot and a suicide bombing in Israel – has already been held under the Mental Health Act.
The suspect, who was subject of a control order and cannot be named for legal reasons, later absconded from the hospital and his whereabouts are unknown.
The existence of FTAC, part of the Metropolitan Police’s specialist operations department which oversees anti-terrorist investigations and royal and diplomatic protection, slipped out in the fine print of a Home Office report.
The report makes it clear FTAC is a counter-terrorism unit and says: “We aim to make the UK a harder target for terrorists by maintaining effective and efficient protective security for public figures.”
NHS documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday reveal the unit’s role “concerns the identification and diversion into psychiatric care of mentally ill people fixated on the prominent”.
The purpose of the centre is “to evaluate and manage the risk posed to prominent people by…those who engage in inappropriate or threatening communications or behaviours in the context of abnormally intense preoccupations, many of which arise from psychotic illness.”
The Mental Health Act requires two doctors or psychiatrists to approve someone’s forcible detention for treatment.
So-called ‘sectioning’ allows a patient to be held for up to six months before a further psychological assessment. Patients are then reviewed every year to determine if they can be released.
FTAC’s senior forensic psychiatrist Dr David James, who has made a study of attacks on British and European politicians by people suffering pathological fixations, is qualified to order such a detention, as are other members of his team.
Also on the staff is Robert Halsey, a consultant forensic clinical psychologist who is a specialist in risk assessment.
The centre, which is based at a secret Central London location, has a staff of four police officers, two civilian researchers, a forensic psychiatrist, a forensic psychologist and a forensic community mental health nurse. Job descriptions make it clear they implement “interventions”.
Human rights activists fear the team, whose existence has never been publicised, may be being used as a way to detain suspected terrorists without having to put evidence before the courts.
It also comes amid a continuing row over proposed mental health legislation which will make it easier to ‘section’ someone deemed a threat to the public.
Last night human rights group Liberty said the secret unit represented a new threat to civil liberties.
Policy director Gareth Crossman said: “There is a grave danger of this being used to deal with people where there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution.
“This blurs the line between medical decisions and police actions. If you are going to allow doctors to take people’s liberty away, they have to be independent. That credibility is undermined when the doctors are part of the same team as the police.
“This raises serious concerns. First that you have a unit that allows police investigation to lead directly to people being sectioned without any kind of criminal proceedings.
“Secondly, it is being done under the umbrella of anti-terrorism at a time when the Government is looking at ways to detain terrorists without putting them on trial.”
FTAC was set up following an NHS research programme based at Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield, Middlesex, which looked at the threat to prominent figures from “fixated” people.
The team examined thousands of cases and liaised with the FBI, the US Secret Service, the Capitol Hill Police, which protects Congressmen and Senators, and the Swedish and Norwegian secret services.
The Swedish authorities gave the team access to files on the murder of foreign minister Anna Lindh who died from multiple stab wounds after being attacked by a stalker in a Stockholm store in 2003.
The research led to FTAC being set up with a £500,000-a-year budget from the Home Office and Department of Health. NHS documents say: “It is a prototype for future joint services.”
No one from FTAC was willing to talk to The Mail on Sunday last week and few Whitehall officials seemed aware of the Centre’s existence.
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: “The Government is trying to bring in a wider definition of mental disorder and is resisting exclusions which ensure that people cannot be treated as mentally disordered on the grounds of their cultural, political or religious beliefs.
“When you hear they are also setting up something like this police unit, it raises questions about quite what their intentions are.
“The use of mental health powers of detention should be confined to the purposes of treatment. But the Government wants to be able to detain someone who is mentally disordered even when the treatment would have no benefit.
“Combined with the idea that someone could be classed as mentally ill on the grounds of their religious beliefs, it is a very worrying scenario.”
Last night a Home Office spokeswoman said there was “nothing sinister” about the unit or its role in counter-terrorism.
She said: “It comes under the remit of royal and diplomatic protection and is administered by that part of the Home Office.
“Psychiatric investigations are undertaken by psychiatric professionals only. Police officers do not assess people with mental health issues. The police provide the intelligence to ensure that psychiatrists have all the information available to make an assessment.
“This is done not only to protect public figures but also to protect the person fixated with the public figure.”
Details of FTAC are revealed as the Government faces a new row over its terrorist control orders after three suspects, supposedly under house arrest, absconded last week.
The suspects, who it is feared may have fled the country, include the brothers of Anthony Garcia, who was jailed last month for his role in a plot to bomb London nightclubs and shopping centres.