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Ending discrimination against those with mental health conditions
14/06/2012 18:28:00

 
 

Each Parliamentary session, a handful of MPs get the chance to bring forward their own Bill to change the law in some way. A ballot is held shorlty after the Queen's Speech and I came fourth in this year's ballot.

I have been inundated with emails and letters asking me to take up various causes. After thinking long and hard, I have today announced, during today's debate on mental health, that I will be presenting the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill. Below is a copy of the speech I gave during what was an incredible debate - read the speeches of Kevan Jones and Charles Walker towards the start of the debate in particular - which explains what the Bill would do and why I chose this cause:

First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate. In my limited experience in the House, the Committee’s debates often show the Chamber at its best. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend Nicky Morgan, who is one of the stars of the 2010 intake on the Government side of the House. She is an example of the work that Lord Maples, who sadly passed away this week, had done to diversify the make-up of Members on our Benches. That is about a lot more than tokenism.

As a number of Members have said, I came fourth in the private Member’s Bill ballot. I found that out because my inbox was suddenly swamped by a large number of e-mails congratulating me, and my mobile phone and desk phone started ringing at the same time. For a Back-Bench Member it is a fairly rare opportunity to change the law of this country. I have taken my time and thought long and hard about what I wanted to bring forward. On Wednesday, I will be presenting the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill, which was introduced by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham in the last parliamentary Session, as Andy Burnham has said. I am doing that partly for personal reasons. Two of my closest personal friends suffer from mental health conditions, and two teachers who had a very formative role in my education, when I was a teenager, have also suffered from mental health conditions. My predecessor, the former Member for Croydon Central, Andrew Pelling, who some Members in the House will have known, also suffered from a mental health condition.

In addition, since I have been a Member of the House, in my surgeries I have met a significant number of constituents who are suffering, including people whose children have been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. There is one gentleman I will never forget who came to my surgery suicidal because he had lost his job and was at risk of losing his home and the ability to support his family. A couple of weeks ago I visited the South London YMCA and met a man who had witnessed someone commit suicide and had gone to his GP for help but had not received proper help and had suffered a breakdown. His marriage had broken up, he had lost his job and he had ended up sleeping in the park. So my decision has been prompted by a mix of personal reasons and what I have seen as a constituency MP.

The Bill is supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and the Law Society. Its purpose is very simple: to remove the last significant form of discrimination in law in our society. This country has changed a huge amount since I was a young child. I remember the first Asian family moving into our road when I was growing up. Some of the people who lived in our road put pressure on the people selling their house not to sell to an Asian family. I also remember the arguments about section 28 and the language that was used in my school playground. We have made a huge amount of progress since then as a country, but we have not got there yet. To our shame, however, the law still discriminates against those with a mental health condition. An MP or a company director can be removed from their job as a result of a mental health condition even if they go on to make a full recovery. Many people who are perfectly capable of performing jury service are disbarred from doing so. If my private Member’s Bill is approved by the House, we will look back in a few years’ time and be amazed that the nonsense I have described was on the statute book in 2012.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough said, one in four of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime; three in four of us will see a member of our immediate family experience such a condition. As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, the numbers have increased because, while the physical conditions in which we live and work have improved, our lives are busier and much more stressful. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 more people will be affected by depression than any other health condition. The law as it stands sends out the message that if someone has a mental health condition their contribution to public life is not welcome.

Lord Stevenson’s Bill had four aims: first, to repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 under which a Member of Parliament, of the Scottish Parliament, of the Welsh Assembly or of the Northern Ireland Assembly automatically lost their seat if they were detained under the Act for more than six months. There is no equivalent provision to remove an MP if they suffer a physical illness that affects their ability to perform their role and, furthermore, someone who lacks mental capacity, as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005, can be detained for up to 12 months and not lose their seat.

Secondly, the Bill would amend the Juries Act 1974 significantly to reduce and better define who is ineligible for jury service. At the moment, the Act says that mentally disordered persons are ineligible. The definition of a mentally disordered person is extremely wide and includes people who manage their mental health condition through a prescription from their GP or counselling from a psychiatrist, thus eliminating all sorts of people who would make excellent jurors. Only 2% of people tick the box, but many more should probably do so. Not only is the law discriminatory but it is ineffective. If someone is on trial, they have a right to be confident that the jury is of sound mind. The Bill would better define who should be ineligible, thus making it much more likely that those people would identify themselves in the process.

Thirdly, the Bill would amend the Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008, so that someone no longer ceased to be a director of a public or private company purely because of their mental health. All companies are required by statute to have articles of association, and model articles operate where a company has failed to draw up its own. Many companies incorporate them into their own articles. They include a provision that someone ceases to be a director if a registered medical practitioner who is treating them gives a written opinion to the company stating that they have become physically or mentally incapable of acting as a director and they remain so for more than three months—in other words, the correct test of capacity. However, they go on to include a totally unnecessary additional provision relating solely to mental health.

Finally, the Bill would amend school governance regulations so that people detained under the Mental Health Acts would no longer be disqualified from holding office as school governors. Clearly, while someone is detained they are unable to attend governors’ meetings, but that may be for only a short time, and there is no reason why they should not resume their role.

I am delighted that the Government have dealt with one of those issues—the School Governance (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 came into force on 17 March, and rightly set the disqualification test as failure to attend six meetings in a period of six months without consent from the governing body. The Government made a public commitment, when they published their mental health strategy, to change the legislation in relation to Members of Parliament. I hope that they will support the rest of the Bill. In other place, Lord Wallace of Saltaire said that the Government were considering the detail of what was proposed on jury service, and he hoped that the Bill would be reintroduced in this Session. I hope that it receives all-party support, and I was delighted to hear what the right hon. Member for Leigh had to say.

I want to end with two simple contentions. First, Parliament, schools, companies and the court system benefit from the involvement of people with experience of mental health conditions. Indeed, our debate has been illuminated in particular by the contributions of my hon. Friend Mr Walker and by Mr Jones. I do not know the hon. Gentleman very well, but I have always pictured him—and I think he would regard it as a compliment—as a bit of a political bruiser. For someone with that reputation to have the courage to say what he said will change people’s opinion of him, and very positively. The whole House has a high regard for what he has said, but I am sure that when we move on to other debates, normal hostilities will be resumed.

A school may have a pupil with a mental health condition; in a court case, the accused’s state of mind may be a key issue. How much better will that school be if a governor has experience? How much better will that court case be if there is a juror with the necessary experience? The Bill will directly help a relatively small number of people, but it also sends a clear message that discrimination is wrong: people have a right to be judged as individuals, not labelled or stereotyped.

In September, the excellent Time to Change campaign, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, surveyed 2,700 people with mental health conditions. Of those, 80% said that they had experienced discrimination, two thirds were too scared to tell their employer, 62% were too scared to tell their friends and, worst of all, more than a third were too scared to seek professional help. Having a mental health condition is nothing to be ashamed of or to keep a secret. It is high time we dragged the law of this land into the 21st century.

Comment on this blog

 

Readers' Comments

On 14/06/2012 19:31:00 Robert Gibson wrote:
I would like to congratulate you on your Mental Health Bill. You delivered it with passion and it is clearly compassionate in its purpose. Mental health should be treated like physical illness and clearly you bill tackles discrimination and helps destigmatise one of the last health taboos. Also no one can doubt your concern for raising literacy standards.

I therefore find it increasingly puzzling why you don't support the cause of Upper Norwood Joint Library whose membership of Croydon residents represents more than 40% of those that use the library. It is thriving in its usage and has huge popular support and its efficiency has been recognised by two independent reports.

Your influence on Croydon Conservative Cabinet is considerable, will you not deploy it to explain that our library is a shining beacon of Localism/Big Society, improving Literacy and Social Inclusion for parents and the vulnerable. It may not be in your constituency but as a national MP you have a duty to promote the best of our society and to represent those who turn to you for help. Helping our library would certainly help dispel the myth that the Tory party is still the nasty party. Nationally the Conservative Party has shown it can listen and change its mind, surely Croydon Conservatives can do the same. I fear if Croydon Conservatives continue to act as if the opinion of their electorate counts for nothing they will face electoral oblivion.

 
On 15/06/2012 10:41:00 Steven wrote:
Well done for attempting to drag the law in this area into the 21st century. It's good to see it getting some positive coverage in the media this morning as well. If changes like this encourage people to seek help when they need it instead of feeling like they have to try to hide their condition, that has to be a good thing, both for them and for society as a whole.
 
On 15/06/2012 11:16:00 Joanne Hancock wrote:
I work as a counsellor and hear and see the lack of provision for counselling on so many occasions. I find it heartbreaking when i see a client who has told me how long they have waited for counselling. Mental health does not seem to be as much of a taboo subject as it used to be. So why are there still huge waiting lists and lack of funding in this day and age?? There are plenty of counsellors and no funding, I work as a volunteer counsellor and pay for child-minding to go and work for free. I have seen adverts on TV for mental health and when people are brave enough to seek help they are all too often told they will have to wait or seek private counselling which cost moneys and in the Salford area of Lancashire where I work there is little money about. I also spoke to someone yesterday who works taking people who have been convicted of a crime from courts to prisons. This women told me she often sees people who clearly have mental health problems get "locked up" because people don't know how to deal with the situation. Surely the cost of someone in prison is a whole lot more than counselling. Such a shame!
 
On 20/06/2012 00:09:00 Adam Kellett wrote:
Wise words, Gavin. I wish you every success with this Bill.
 
On 21/06/2012 13:48:00 Anthony Miller wrote:
I book many people with mental health conditions - many of whom have used those conditions to their career advantage. However call me a bigot but the idea of more of them being allowed to be on juries does not inspire me. You say they can bring life experience… but surely the job of a juror is to cogitate on the guilt and innocence of the defendant based on the facts as presented to them in court? Where does "life experience" come into that? Indeed they are explicitly told to "put out of their mind" everything in the outside world but the facts of the case. Given the primary aim of jury room discussion is logical analysis of facts and probabilities I would have thought that having reasonable good mental health was a good idea for a juror.

They are not judges and "life experience" is surely not required, just being grown up. "Use your Common Sense" as Mr Justice Oliver Oliphant used to say.

"In a court case, the accused ’s state of mind may be a key issue. How much better will that court case be if there is a juror with the necessary experience?”

Really if the defendant has mental health issues that should be assessed by experts before the trial, shouldn’t it? And is a matter for the judge not the jury? The jury is there to assess probability, not to give expert testimony. Of course they may use their experience of life to aid in their assessment of the probabilities but only up to a point. If the best jurors are ones with life experience surely the logical step then would be to get rid of all the young ones and have juries full of pensioners.

This is the problem with political correctness. In the name of equality everyone is to be treated the same - even when some people may be better suited to some tasks than other. And I fear that in the desire not to offend anyone tough questions will not be asked about the logistics of this bill. Sorry but I don't think people should be selected to sit on juries if they have poor mental health. And it's easy to talk about more socially respectable conditions like mild autism, depression and OCD but (and this may be bigotry) I confess I feel a bit more queasy about people who have/have had schizophrenia being in such a position. Just because people can function in society with medication doesn’t mean they should be put in a position of responsibility or are not (in some cases) in constant threat of relapse.

As to MPs, could the Bill consider the question of what to do if, as in the case of Andrew Pelling, an MP is (for a time) unable to discharge their duties due to poor mental health (or indeed physical health)? While I'm sure Mr Ottaway did a good job helping deal with Mr Pelling's casework when he was unavailable, it did leave one feeling that there was for a time no MP for Croydon Central at all.

Finally since we are informed glibly that actually there is (or should be) no stigma at all in having a mental health condition is someone from Mind going to agree to scrap the mental protocol the main three parties signed to stop politicians "using opponents’ mental health problems during an election to win political advantage"? Seems that politicians though are allowed to wax lyrical about their own mental health problems between elections if they think it'll win them votes? A double standard?

 
On 22/06/2012 11:12:00 Pippa Jones wrote:
Congratulations on your bill. I was refused the chance to serve on a jury although I had been well for a number of years. Good wishes for its progress.
 
On 22/06/2012 22:20:00 Susan Oliver wrote:
Totally impressed by this piece. Very courageous. Kudos on your work in this area, very commendable indeed.
 
 

 

 

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Gavin Barwell, 133 Wickham Road, CR0 8TE, Tel  020 8663 8741      © Gavin Barwell  2014       Promoted by Ian Parker on behalf of Gavin Barwell, both at 36 Brighton Road, Purley, CR8 2LG