Care Services Minister Paul Burstow has said he will take whatever steps are necessary to tackle the overprescribing of antipsychotic drugs to people with dementia, and this could include changes to the Mental Capacity Act.

Last November, the government set a target to reduce by a third the number of antipsychotics prescribed to dementia patients within a year, but early indications are that this goal has not been met, Mr Burstow told the National Dementia Congress in Liverpool. Prescribed antipsychotics are estimated to contribute to the premature deaths of around 1,800 people every year.

Antipsychotic drugs are not licensed for treating dementia, they can worsen the very signs and symptoms that are the trigger for such prescribing in the first place, and they kill people because they increase the risks of stroke and other life-threatening conditions, the Minister said.

To forcibly sedate people to make them easier to manage is not only risky but also robs people of their dignity, he told the Congress. "Call it the chemical cosh, call it chemical restraint, call it what you will - it is a prison sentence, locking a person in their own body," said Mr Burstow, adding: "it is a silent scandal that I won't tolerate. In no other area of health and care would it be acceptable to put so many lives at risk for so little benefit."

The Minister said he would be reviewing the government target in March and that he will, if necessary, start the process of amending the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards contained within the Mental Capacity Act to enable them to cover the inappropriate prescribing of antipsychotic drugs to people with dementia.

Pointing out that the purpose of the Act is to protect the best interests of the individual, Mr Burstow said that the prescribing of antipsychotic drug treatments, against the evidence and without clear clinical justification, amounts to "a deprivation of liberty." 

Welcoming the Minister's comments, the Alzheimer's Society called for mandatory review of antipsychotic prescription after 12 weeks. "It is an absolute travesty that nearly 150,000 people with dementia are still being inappropriately prescribed dangerous antipsychotic drugs," said the Society.

- This week, the government has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the early signs and symptoms of dementia, in order to encourage earlier diagnosis.

The National Audit Office (NAO) estimates that, nationally, dementia costs health and social care services £8.2 billion a year, while Alzheimer's Research UK puts the cost of dementia to society as a whole at £23 billion every year. It is estimated that annual savings of £80 million could result from improving hospital care for people with dementia, says the Department of Health.