Debating the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill

13. New Members of Parliament ask questions

Yesterday there was a debate about Mental Health in the House of Commons. Although I was at work and couldn’t follow it ‘live’ but information garnered – mostly from my Twitter feed – was on the whole positive.

This was a chance for specific discussions about mental health to be discussed by our legislative assembly in an open manner and some MPs took the opportunity to talk about their own histories of mental illness.

The debate took place in the context of a Private Member’s Bill debate where  the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill  – introduced earlier in this Parliamentary Session (after an abortive attempt last year) into the  House of Lords by Lord Dennis Stevenson and co-sponsored by Charles Walker MP , would cover four distinct and remaining discriminatory provisions in our current legal framework. It was introduced to the House of Commons by Gavin Barwell MP who ‘won’ one of the ‘Private Member’s Bill’ spots in the Parliamentary Session.

The provisions as Barwell described them himself in his speech are

To repeal Section 141 of The Mental Health Act 1983, under which a member of the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Irish Assembly automatically loses their seat if they are detained under the Act for more than six months. There is no equivalent provision to remove an MP if they suffer from a physical illness (e.g. a serious stroke or cancer) that affects their ability to perform their role. Furthermore, a person who lacks mental capacity as defined by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 may be detained for up to 12 months and wouldn’t lose their seat.

To amend The Juries Act 1974to 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 via a prescription from their GP or counselling from a psychiatrist, thereby eliminating all sorts of people who would make excellent jurors. Only 2% tick the box exempting them from jury service on mental health grounds – statistically speaking many more should, so not only is the law discriminatory but it is also ineffective. Of course, someone on trial has a right to be confident that the jury is of sound mind. This Bill would seek to better define those who should be ineligible – people who have been detained under the Mental Health Act 2003, people who have voluntarily admitted themselves to hospital to seek treatment, people under guardianship or subject to a Community Treatment Order and people who lack capacity within the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – thereby making it more likely they will identify themselves correctly.

To amend The Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008so that a person no longer ceases to be a director of a public or private company purely by reason of their mental health. All companies are required by statute to have articles of association. The model articles operate where a company has failed to draw up its own articles and many companies who do draw up their own include most or all of the model articles. The model articles include a provision that a person ceases to be a director if a registered medical practitioner who is treating that person gives a written opinion to the company stating that that person has become physically or mentally incapable of acting as a director and may remain so for more than three months – in other words, the correct test of capacity. But there is then a totally unnecessary additional provision relating to a person’s mental health.

• To amend The School Governance (Constitution) (England) Regulations 2007 so that those detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 would no longer be disqualified from holding office as school governors. Clearly while someone is detained they will be unable to attend governors’ meetings but this may only be for a very short term and if so there is no reason why they shouldn’t resume the role.

Barwell makes the point that there is no equivalence of consideration between mental and physical health concerns in relation to recovery and this feeds into the broader stigma associated with mental health.

I suspect the stigma is related to fear about the ‘unknown’. Speaking out and identifying periods of needing support with mental health should not be something that is considered differently from other physical health needs but  there is still, I think, in some contexts, an element of seeing a mental illness as a defect of character.

If you ‘pulled your socks up’ you could see yourself through the period of depression. If you thought more logically, you would know that your anxiety isn’t rational. These are some of the common perceptions that i have come across. They can be enormously damaging as can any shift of the ‘blame’ narrative when trying to push the move towards recovery. Health – physical and mental – is something enormously personal to us. I tend to think that the two can’t be separated either. Just as we accept that people may respond differently physiologically to ‘treatment’ so we have to more broadly accept and understand there are different responses psychologically to ‘treatment’.

I’m glad this Bill looks like moving towards statute – it’s long overdue and while there is so much more that needs to be done in terms of challenging stigma – breaking down legislative and institutional barriers is a very key part to challenging and addressing stigma more broadly in the communities in which we live.

pic by UK Parliament Flickr

6 thoughts on “Debating the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill

  1. I listened to a bit of this last night and it was good to hear mental health being talked about mostly in a sincere way. There was some joking however as people ‘came out’ and called themselves ‘fruitcakes’ which I don’t really think helps the stigma situation!

  2. I saw most of this and it was very good to see non-partisan discussion of the broader issues around stigma and discrimination. Not so very long ago nobody talked about cancer presumably in the hope that ignorance (the act of ignoring) aka denial would make unpleasantness go away. The bill itself is long overdue and I dare anyone to oppose it, Perhaps one day soon the term stigmatist will become an offensive epithet along with racist or racialist. I disagree strongly with politicalnurse about the language used: the euphemisation of serious medical conditions helps maintain the stigma as people are to afeared to talk about the subject.

    For the record, I am not a service user: at the moment I use the term mentalist

  3. I agree that we should talk about it but not laugh about it, mental illness is a very serious often fatal condition which should be taken very seriously – I am not against the use of humour as a way of dealing with difficlut situation but I am sure we no longer accept racist jokes so why should we accept mental illness jokes?

    Anyone who ever remembers the mother in law/irish/scottish/ welsh jokes (or who still tells them) will know how stigmatising they can be?

  4. Hello ermintrude2
    Thank you for posting this information. The debate was well conducted with Members of Parliament representing their constituents and members of the public with sincerity and passion which cannot be said about most of the Bills debated.

    Kind regards,


  5. Pingback: This Week in Mentalists – Pooping the Colour Edition « The World of Mentalists

  6. This Bill would seek to better define those who should be ineligible – people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder that would affect the way their mind works (unless their condition is well controlled with medication or other therapy) and people who lack capacity within the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – thereby making it more likely they will identify themselves correctly.
    FTFY, Lord Dennis Stevenson.

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