A Strong Voice for Croydon Central - Gavin Barwell MP
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Mental Health Discrimination (2) Bill - second reading speech
14/09/2012 13:18:00


On 14th September 2012 my Private Member's Bill, the 'Mental Health Discrimination (2) Bill', had its second reading in the House of Commons. I had the privilege of speaking first - below is a transcript:

"I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Mr Speaker, I am here today because I was lucky enough to be drawn fourth in the Private Member’s Bill ballot. As is often the case in this place, I found out I had come fourth not through any official communication but because my inbox was suddenly deluged with e-mails congratulating me and my mobile phone and landline started ringing at the same time. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a reshuffle going on at the time.

It’s rare for a backbench Member to have the opportunity to change the law of this country. I received hundreds of good suggestions - some a little more realistic than others - so I took my time and thought long and hard before making my choice.

I chose the issue of mental health for three reasons.

First, it affects so many people. 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. These numbers have been increasing and will continue to do so 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.

Second, because beyond these headline figures I have seen at first hand how people struggle with mental ill health - and how hard they often find it to discuss their mental health even with those that they are close to. Two of my closest personal friends suffer from mental health conditions as do two former teachers I have kept in touch with, both of whom very sadly had to retire early, and my predecessor as Member of Parliament, Andrew Pelling, who had to take a leave of absence from this House in early 2008 - but crucially was able to return to work and do a good job for his constituents.

And since I have been a Member of the House, numerous constituents with mental health conditions have come to me for help. There are two specific cases that stick in my mind. One was man who came to my surgery because he had lost his job and was at risk of losing his home, broke down in tears and openly discussed committing suicide. The second was a resident at a South London YMCA property in my constituency who had witnessed someone commit suicide, he had gone to his GP for help and was effectively told to get over it, suffered a breakdown, lost his job and his marriage and ended up sleeping on a park bench. Anything we can do to help people suffering with such conditions, even in a small way, has to be a good thing.

The third reason I chose this issue was because it had a particularly passionate advocate in the form of my Honourable Friend the Member for Broxbourne. I hope he will speak later in this debate so that those who have not heard him speak on this issue before will set that passion for themselves.

My Bill’s purpose is very simple: to tackle the last legal form of discrimination in our society. Over the course of my adult life, we’ve made significant progress in tackling racism, sexism and homophobia. Parliament changed the law, sent a clear signal, attitudes changed though things are still far from perfect.

But to our shame the law still discriminates against those with a mental health condition. An MP or a company director can be removed from their job because of mental ill health even if they go on to make a full recovery. Many people who are perfectly capable of performing jury service are ineligible to do so. The law as it stands sends out a clear message that if someone has a mental health condition their contribution to public life is not welcome. That is an affront to a decent, civilised society.

The party opposite deserves credit for the legislation they passed to tackle other forms of discrimination - the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, the Civil Partnership Act 2004. My Party initially lagged behind on these issues but it can be proud of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and I very much hope that legislation to tackle this remaining form of discrimination will be passed under this Coalition Government. The belief that people should be treated as individuals and judged on their merits, not face stigma and discrimination, is common to all mainstream parties. I believe that if this Bill does gain Royal Assent, we will look back in a few years’ time and be amazed that it took till 2012 to do it.

The Bill is supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and I thank them, my assistant Mario Creatura and the Bill Office, for all their help. It was originally introduced in the other place by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham in the last session. It is he, and not I, who deserves the credit for raising the issue.

His 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 loses their seat if they are detained under the Act for more than six months.

There is no equivalent provision for Peers.

Nor is there an equivalent provision if an MP suffers from a physical illness that affects their ability to perform their role so the law is clearly discriminatory, stigmatising those with mental health conditions and giving the false impression that people cannot recover from such conditions. In the Law Society’s opinion, it may well breach the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UK ratified in 2009. Article 20 of the Convention states that governments should “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected”. There is also a danger that the law as it stands might deter Members from admitting to having a mental health condition and seeking treatment.

Ludicrously, it is more harsh than the law relating to MPs who are sent to prison, which doesn’t take effect unless that MP is sentenced for more than a year.

Finally an MP 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 so the law is also a nonsense.

In its current form, it has never been used, though back in 1916 Dr Charles Leach MP was removed from his seat using provisions of predecessor legislation the Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act 1886.

In January 2010, the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation recommended that the law should be changed.

Clearly there is a debate to be had about what should happen if an MP is unable to perform their role for an extended period. The Speaker’s Conference recommended that the House should invite an appropriate Select Committee to undertake an inquiry into this issue. My contention in the meantime is simple: the current law is both discriminatory and an ass. We should put that right while we consider the wider issue.

No lesser authority that Parker’s Law and Conduct of Elections says that, as well as statute, there is common law that “idiots are disqualified for election to Parliament”. That may come as news to some of our constituents. Nevertheless to guard against the unlikely event that the courts would interpret this as referring to those with mental health conditions, Clause 1 (2) of the Bill abolishes any such common law.

The second aim of Lord Stevenson’s Bill was to 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 once they are able to.

The third aim was to amend the Juries Act 1974, which applies to England and Wales, to significantly 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 theoretically eliminating all sorts of people who would make excellent jurors. In practice, the definition is so wide many people who probably should don’t tick the box, perhaps including some who genuinely shouldn’t be jurors.

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 broadly in line with the current law in Scotland, thus making it much more likely that these people would identify themselves correctly.

The final aim was to amend the Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008 so that someone no longer ceases 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. The model articles 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.

The Government has already dealt with one of those issues - the School Governance (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 came into force on 17 March this year and rightly set the disqualification test for school governors as failure to attend meetings for a period of six months without consent from the governing body.

The Government recently confirmed that it would support the remaining measures in Lord Stevenson’s Bill subject to some small changes to the provisions relating to jury service to which I have agreed. I hope my Honourable Friend, the Member for Norwich North, won’t mind if I pay a particular tribute to her predecessor, the Honourable Member for the Forest of Dean, who first raised these issues when my Party was in opposition and played a key role in securing Government support for the Bill. I would also like to thank the Deputy Prime Minister, who also has a long-standing interest in these issues and has been vocal in his support, and civil servants in the Cabinet Office for their help with the detailed drafting and explanatory notes.

Finally, before this turns into an Oscar acceptance speech, I would like to thank the Official Opposition for their support and in particular the Shadow Health Secretary, who has already distinguished himself this week in relation to the Hillsborough Panel, and whose passion for health issues is self-evident.

Mr Speaker, I want to end with three simple contentions.

First, the law as it stands sends an appalling message to people with mental health conditions.

Take Charlotte, who was diagnosed with depression and clinical anxiety in 2003. In 2008, she received a summons to undertake jury service. At the time she was working as a Probation Officer and therefore had extensive experience of working in both Magistrates and Crown Courts. She declared her condition and explained that she had not seen a psychiatrist for four years and was no longer seeing her GP, merely picking up repeat prescriptions for anti-depressants every three months. She received a brief message saying she was ineligible and says, “I felt angry and disappointed...I was very much well enough to cope...and my GP would have been happy to confirm this”.

Or Angela, who was told she was ineligible for jury service in 2009 because she sees her doctor three times a year for depression. She says, “in my early days of mental illness, I would not have been able to sit on a jury. Now I have recovered and gone back to work in research at a university. This blanket ban means that I can’t do my civic duty. It basically implies that I have nothing to offer society because I have a mental health condition, without any regard to how I am actually functioning now. This is totally outrageous”. I couldn’t agree more.

Second, if this Bill is passed companies, our courts and Parliament itself will benefit directly from the involvement of more people with experience of mental health conditions. The recent Backbench Business debate on mental health was illuminated in particular by the contributions of my Honourable Friend the Member for Broxbourne and the Honourable Member for North Durham.

Third and most importantly, passing this Bill will send a clear message that discrimination is wrong, that people have a right to be judged as individuals, not stigmatised or discriminated against.

If anyone doubts the extent of the problem, last September the excellent Time to Change campaign, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, surveyed 2,700 people with mental health conditions. 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. Ensuring that fewer people experience stigma and discrimination is quite rightly one of the key objectives of the Government’s Mental Health Strategy, No Health Without Mental Health. Changing the law won’t change society overnight but it will send a clear signal - that this Parliament believes that having a mental health condition is nothing to be ashamed of or to keep a secret.

Mr Speaker, it is high time we dragged the law of this land into the 21st century and I humbly ask Honourable Members to support this Bill."

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 24/09/2012 19:21:00 Jayne Laville wrote:
I think its fantastic, you are giving people the right to live without stigma and fear, for that there are many words of thanks, there are however not many 'dare hope's.

The passing of the Autisim Act 2009 dashed many a peoples hope's as nothing much changed, but you I know personally, and to be fair you are without doubt THE BEST MP EVER!

I know you to be honest and fair, you genuinley care for others , you give up all your time to do the job you love most and for that I am truly thankful.




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