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Mental Health Bill [Lords]

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:04 pm on 16th April 2007.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 9:04 pm, 16th April 2007

I have paid fulsome tribute to the speeches of Members this evening but my views are little different from those of the hon. Lady and I hope she will accept that.

I am concerned that we may be deliberately, or mistakenly, pandering to the tabloid press and validating some its more screaming headlines. I did some research; the Daily Mail had the headline

"Knife maniac freed to kill...Mental patient ran amok in the park", while The Sun had

"Violent, mad. So docs set him free. New community care scandal."

They are appalling misrepresentations of people with mental illness, and it does our media a great disservice that they persist in bringing them forward. However, I believe that we live in a civilised society and that our Government will in their heart not want to regulate in this area to satisfy the tabloid press.

The media reporting of mental illness is shameful. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has stated:

"The media's obsession with reporting cases of mental health patients who become violent has seriously distorted the truth. Mental health is not a predictor of violence against others for almost all diagnosis".

It continues:

"There is a slightly higher risk of violence with a diagnosis of schizophrenia but this is insignificant compared with the relationship between other conditions and violence—alcohol consumption being the main one."

Before I leave the subject of the press, I wish to say that it is unacceptable at a time when we have consigned phrases such as "cripple" and "retard" to the scrapheap that many of our leader writers still think that it is legitimate to use words such as "nutter" and "loony". Much of the media's reporting can be put down to laziness and avarice to keep their circulation up.

Recent research by the Glasgow University Media Group into the attitudes of senior production staff to the reporting of mental illness resulted in the following conclusions—unsurprisingly:

"News and features emphasise the newsworthy rather than the worthy. Stereotypes are therefore enormously useful and they short circuit the need to spend time understanding a topic. They simply follow a rapid tried and tested formula which is known to work commercially."

Commenting on the research, Graham Thornicroft, head of the health service research department at the Institute of Psychology said:

"This is consistent with the tendency for people with mental illness, when not shown as violent predators, to be allocated to the category of helpless victim."

One of the tragedies of the Bill proposed by the Government is that there was not much compassion in it. There is a lack of willingness to challenge some of the distortions of mental illness peddled and promoted by the media. I have a great deal of time for the Minister—I have met her privately on a couple of occasions to discuss my concerns about mental health problems in my constituency— but in her ministerial press release of 1 March, after the Lords amendments were passed, she mentioned public protection no fewer than six times. What she mentioned was public protection—not the interests of the patient, but the interests of the public. Public protection is a consideration, but it should not overshadow the main purpose of any mental health legislation, which is the care, safety and well-being of patients.

Let me give a further quote from the Royal College of Psychiatrists:

"The law should seek to reduce stigma and discrimination against people with mental illness. Wherever possible the principles governing mental health care should be the same as those which govern physical care enabling people to feel able to seek help early, to ask about their fears and difficulties, without fearing scorn, humiliation or loss of status, freedom, job and friends is the best way to bring about improvement in their health."

I will not dwell on statistics, but it is worth pointing out that people in this country are almost four times more likely to be killed in a motor traffic accident than to be murdered and 80 times more likely to be killed in a motor traffic accident than to be killed by someone suffering from schizophrenia. In our tolerant society, we cannot live without risk and still call our society free. With the best intentions in the world, the Government cannot legislate to create a risk-free society.

It appears that a different set of rules apply to the mentally ill—that the normal rules relating to limiting civil liberties and rights are suspended. Let us imagine what would be the outcome if we were to follow the advice offered in an article in The Daily Telegraph today. The article is entitled:

"MPs should vote to save innocent lives".

It is written by Philip Johnston, who writes:

"If this Bill will save lives, then Parliament has a duty to support it."

I can think of a couple of Bills—unattractive Bills—that might save lives, and which might have been brought forward in a less enlightened time, such as 30 or 40 years ago. We could introduce a Bill to ensure that people with AIDS are locked up so that they do not pose a public risk. That would be unattractive, but I am sure that it would save a few lives. We could go out and round up young black males in Peckham, which might save a few lives in that area, but that is an unattractive and unpalatable solution. So why is it that when we discuss mental health we too often separate sufferers from everyone else to whom we accord rights?

Things have improved for those suffering from mental illness and I would not be churlish enough to deny that, but the Bill is the acid test, because it deals with some difficult issues. Of course people who pose a danger to others should be given treatment and looked after. But 79 members of the Mental Health Alliance would not be supporting the Lords amendments or opposing the Government's original drafting if the Bill would not massively extend the scope of the existing provisions to people who for good reasons should not be covered by the new legislation. I cannot believe that the 79 members of the MHA have got it wrong, or that the BMA and the Institute of Psychiatry have got it wrong, but the Government have got it right. Surely the Government must recognise that when they are in a minority of one it is time to look at the issue again. The MHA is purely dedicated to looking after the interests of those who suffer from mental illness and I take their advice very seriously.


Posted on 4 May 2007 4:37 pm (Report this annotation)

I couldn't agree more, it is scandalous how the papers are getting aware with the scar mongering of late if I didn't know any better I would assume they are in cahoots with the timing of this bill to terrorise the general public into supporting a thing they know very little about. You are preaching to the converted it is the general public that need to be aware of the draconian measures that the government sorts to inflict on the few. We should be promoting the wealth and creativity of the many who function well in spite of having a mental health diagnosis, and some of which believe it is because they do.