Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:01 am on 14th September 2012.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 10:01 am, 14th September 2012

I rise—of course I rise—to speak very much in support of the Bill, which seeks to repeal provisions that are a throwback to a time when mental illness was hidden away and not dealt with. I will confine my remarks mostly to section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, in my role as vice-chair of the Speaker’s Conference, but I support all the provisions in the Bill.

As Gavin Barwell pointed out, the Speaker’s Conference strongly recommended that section 141 be repealed. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will read the relevant part from the extended summary of the Speaker’s Conference report. It is headed, “Attitudes to mental illness and the disqualification of MPs”, and it reads:

“Society’s response to those who experience mental illness can discourage such people from putting themselves forward as candidates for Parliament. We heard that section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 presents particular problems for this community. Section 141 provides that a Member could lose his or her seat in Parliament if detained under the Mental Health Act for a period of six months or more. The provision has never been used. There are arguments both for and against section 141. It may be said that the reason for this law is not the illness itself but the detention of the Member by law, and the effects this detention may have upon the Member's ability to work for his or her constituents effectively.

On the other hand, the law is not consistent or logical in its treatment of various types of illness or disorder. If a Member suffers from serious physical illness—say a stroke—that can leave constituents effectively un-represented in much the same way as if a Member has a serious mental disorder. Yet there is no parallel provision to section 141 for cases of physical illness or impairment. Many people told us that section 141 wrongly suggests that mental illness is in some way fundamentally different in its effects from physical illness. The House, through its medical services, can provide care and assistance for those with mental illness, just as it can for those with physical illness. We believe that section 141 of the 1983 Mental Health Act should be repealed as soon as practicable. There should be a review to examine whether alternative measures should be taken to protect the interests of constituents, and the House, when a Member becomes seriously physically or mentally ill.”

I am truly grateful that section 141 does not apply to people with physical disabilities, because, as you know Mr Speaker, after a recent accident I was away from the Chamber for six months. Had this provision applied to me, I would have been asked to step down as an MP, but thanks to your indulgence, and that of the House and my constituents, I was able to recover and return these past two weeks the House has been sitting. Interestingly, I do not think my constituents necessarily felt that they were being disadvantaged, because obviously an MP has lots of other things to do. Even someone with mental health problems can answer e-mails and direct their staff and casework. So it is rare for someone to be completely out of the loop.

Section 141 singles out mental health as a particular problem, but I believe that it misunderstands the whole nature of mental health. The Speaker’s Conference found that the provision created two main barriers. First, it might deter anyone elected from disclosing and so drive the issue of mental health underground. Secondly, people thinking of becoming or aspiring to be an MP who have a history of mental health problems might not put themselves forward, fearing the consequences if they did.

In the past, Members have not disclosed. That was so until the recent debate when Mr Walker and my hon. Friend Mr Jones spoke bravely and openly about the issues that have affected them. No one can dispute that they are, and have been, very effective MPs, and their experience has actually made them better MPs, because often they can better understand the issues affecting many of their constituents. It also shows that mental health can be an issue for anyone anywhere, from all walks of life, at any time. It does not necessarily have to be permanent either. Like with any chronic condition, it is how someone adapts and learns to live with the condition that makes them able to participate in society.

Non-disclosure was never a problem for me when I was standing for election—the wheelchair was a bit of a giveaway—so I do not know what it would be like if I had a hidden disability, whether physical or whatever. In the run-up to the 1997 election, would I have said to the electors and political parties, “By the way, I’ve got this hidden health problem”? I do not think so. So I can understand why people with a history of mental health problems might not want people to know about it—after all, it is private, it is their health record.

Nobody asks potential candidates, “By the way, are there any health problems we should know about?” That would be unacceptable in the selection process. I understand, then, why it would be difficult for someone who is new and does not know how it will be taken to tell the world that they have had—they might be perfectly all right now—an episode of depression, post-natal depression or whatever. There is always the nagging suspicion that perhaps their opponents or local press might use it to their detriment.

There were probably people in my constituency in 1997 who did not vote for me—surprisingly enough some people did not vote for me. Actually about 60% of them did not! But some did not vote for me because they thought I could not manage. While out canvassing, one of my campaigners knocked on the door of someone who said, “Oh, I won’t be voting for her, because I don’t see how she’ll manage.” My campaigner said, “Well, if you met her, you’d realise that that’s not the case.” But the man replied, “Oh no” and shut the door. Of course, when I heard about this, I went straight up and knocked on the door, but he did not come to the door. I am fairly sure that he still did not vote for me.

In 1997, some people will have had a niggling doubt at the back of their mind about whether someone with my level of disability could manage. In elections since, many people still have not voted for me, but now it is because they do not like my politics—and that is as it should be. People should base their decisions on the individual’s ability and on the thing that divides us in the House, and that is our approach to certain policies.

The second reason section 141 has acted as a barrier is that anyone who thinks they could be a good MP might be reluctant to come forward. One of the problems was that they could not see anyone in this place who had any kind of mental health issue—no one had shown this “weakness”. However, we know that this is simply not the case, which gives the lie to the idea that MPs do not have mental health problems.

If we look back to history, we remember people saying that a deaf person could not be an MP. “How could they possibly hear the debates and participate in them?” But along came Jack Ashley. Then people said, “Well, somebody who’s blind certainly couldn’t be an MP. How could they read all the papers and see the non-verbal things that happen in the Chamber? How could they manage?” Along came my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett. Then people said, “Well we can’t have somebody with cerebral palsy being an MP, because if they had a speech impediment, you wouldn’t be able to understand them when they spoke.” Along came Paul Maynard. And then, of course, they said that somebody who was mobility impaired would not have the stamina and the strength to get around in a wheelchair, including getting around this Victorian mausoleum, never mind anywhere else. Modesty forbids me from saying who could have come along to dispute that.

On each of those occasions, the House of Commons—indeed, the Houses of Parliament—adjusted. I think Jack Ashley and my right hon. Friend would say that it was a bit of a struggle in the early days. However, in each case the House authorities managed the make the necessary adjustments—as is right and proper—to allow all of us with these various disabilities to participate fully in the work of the House of Commons; and so it should be for people who might have problems with their mental health.

The Speaker’s Conference found that section 141 of the 1983 Act had erected an extra barrier, which was that MPs who were perhaps experiencing stress and falling into a spiral of depression would not seek help immediately. Although the section had never been used, its mere presence on the statute book was enough to make MPs who might have sought help at an early stage—and who might thereby not have deteriorated as far as they did—reluctant to seek that help. Of course, the irony is that if someone does not seek appropriate help at the earliest stage, the problem can deteriorate to the point where it is more likely that that kind of legal provision could be invoked. That was a particular problem we looked at.

Parliament has to set an example. We have to reflect life outside this place if we are going to be able to legislate for that life. We need people with all sorts of experience. The presence of section 141 is a barrier to those who may have had mental health problems in the past or who may still be grappling with them, when those individuals should be welcomed into this place with open arms, because their experience is valuable. This House must reflect all of society. If it does not, we are a lot less effective and we will therefore not make good legislation.