Mental Health Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 19th February 2007.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (NHS Reform) 3:45 pm, 19th February 2007

My Lords, as in Committee stage, we have had a very good debate on the question of principles and I hope to offer noble Lords a constructive way forward.

There is no disagreement between the Government and noble Lords who have spoken today. Like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, we wish to see a clear statement of values, as he described it. Nor is there any argument about the need for as much clarity as possible both within the legislation and the code of practice. We could have a theological debate about the thousands of practitioners out there and the extent to which they consult the legislation and the code but it is clear that, collectively, we have to ensure that practitioners understand both the legislation and the guidance. That understanding goes together.

The Government's concern all along has been with the way that the amendments have been put forward. Although it appears to be straightforward to add a number of principles to the Bill, unless these things are drafted as carefully as possible, far from giving clarity, there could be confusion among practitioners. That is why we have been working hard to see whether we can find a way through that accommodates the clear wish of noble Lords and practitioners to understand fully the principles that inform the way this legislation will be dealt with and practised, at the same time as ensuring that we clarify and not confuse.

There is no argument that the principles that underpin a Bill that amends an established Act, which enables people to be deprived of their liberty, are of critical importance. Deprivation of liberty is a serious issue and we must deprive people of their liberty only when it is essential to do so. We have to achieve the right balance of powers to intervene to prevent harm and to safeguard an individual's rights. However, in the light of comment on the Bill over the past weekend, I want to emphasise that the intention is not to lock up more people or to keep people unnecessarily under compulsory powers once they have been detained in hospital. The Bill is about ensuring that people who need treatment, because they have a mental disorder that is so serious that they are a danger to themselves or others, get the help and protection that they need in the right environment. We want to reduce the incidence of patients with a mental disorder losing touch with mental health services after being discharged from hospital, getting ill and reaching a crisis.

It is clear that the principles that we have debated today and in Committee would provide reassurance about our intentions with the legislation. In Committee, I explained some of the problems that we have with including principles in the Bill. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, criticised the government response, but in my winding up speech I said that it was not about the niceties of parliamentary draftsmen. Because of the way that these amendments would appear in the Act, there is a danger that, instead of the clarification that she seeks, considerable confusion and uncertainty could be caused for practitioners.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, mentioned, as he did in Committee, the Mental Capacity Act and the Scottish Act. Much water has flowed under the bridge over the past eight or nine years but the Government have decided to produce an amending Bill not a comprehensive new Bill covering all mental health legislation. Consequences flow from that. One is that it is not easy to simply graft the principles that have been suggested on to the existing 1983 Act. I accept that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and his fellow proposers have made every effort to respond to the points that I made in Committee two or three weeks ago. Their amendment would require all those discharging any function under the Act to have regard to each of the three principles and then exercise the function in the least restrictive manner—but even those principles, when placed in legislation, would raise some issues. The current Act makes specific and detailed provision for a multitude of different situations. Principles may already be given specific effect in the relevant part of the Act or may not in fact be relevant to every situation or, as my noble friend Lord Turnberg said, may conflict with each other or with the specific provisions of the Act. What weight is the decision-maker to give to the different criteria in that case? Is there a potential for him to be challenged because he has, for example, not complied with the patient's wishes? Will patients who would otherwise be detained for treatment be released with consequent risk to public safety and their own because the decision maker thinks that the patient's wishes and the need for minimum restriction must take precedence over the risk of harm to themselves and others?

The 1983 Act already embodies the principles that are proposed in the amendment. Part 2 of the Act provides the basic criteria for detention for civil patients. For example, to detain someone under Part 2 of the Act specific criteria must be met to ensure that hospital treatment under compulsion is both appropriate and necessary. First, the patient must have been examined by two medical doctors who must conclude that the patient is suffering from a mental disorder, and that that disorder requires treatment in hospital. But this is not all. The medical practitioners must conclude that the mental disorder is such that the patient is at risk of harm to themselves or to others. They must be able to determine also whether other methods of dealing with the patient are available, and, if so, must be able to explain why they are not appropriate. In addition to these strict criteria, it is a requirement of the process of detention that the patient participates in the process and that an attempt is made to ascertain their wishes and feelings. These principles are embodied in Section 13, which requires the approved social worker to interview the patient. The approved social worker under Section 13 must also satisfy themselves that admission to hospital is, in all the circumstances of the case, the most appropriate way of providing the care and medical treatment that the patient needs—and this embodies the principle of using the minimum restriction.

The need to allow the patient to make clear his views and to take account of them when considering admission is already catered for in the 1983 Act. What would be the effect of adding a requirement to consider separately the principles set out in the amendment? Does it mean that if the patient does not want to be detained he should not be, or should the fact that the statutory criteria are met outweigh the patient's wishes and the minimum restriction principle? The answer is unclear.

In Committee, noble Lords expressed concern about the provisions for supervised community treatment, and amendments have been tabled to tighten the criteria for being placed on a community treatment order. This amendment requires the function to be carried out in a manner that involves minimum restriction necessary. It is at least arguable that supervised community treatment is less restrictive than detention in hospital. This amendment might cause confusion and uncertainty as to the use of supervised community treatment. It could also raise questions about the application of the specific criteria for supervised community treatment in light of the principle.

I refer to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Soley and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on non-discrimination. The general laws on discrimination will apply to those who have functions under the Act. Many laws come under the discrimination banner; they are detailed and complicated and contain exceptions and qualifications. Practitioners are without question already subject to these laws. The amendment lists four laws, and states that people should have regard to the principles in those laws. Interestingly, none of those laws has explicit principles. The principles in those laws, as in the Mental Health Act 1983, are inherent in the provisions. Not all the provisions of the laws the amendment mentions will apply or have relevance to a person carrying out functions under the Mental Health Act. For instance, some of them relate to employment issues. Therefore, the amendment might cause confusion whether the practitioner should adhere to all the principles in each of those Acts, or only those that would normally apply.

We do not take issue with the amendment in principle but we are concerned about its practical effect and the confusion that it might cause. I have attempted to identify areas where that confusion might arise.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to discussions that took place. I want to respond to this debate as positively as possible and to meet noble Lords' concerns. I recognise that they wish to see principles placed in the Bill. I suggest that that can be done in a way that will not cause the confusion that this amendment and the one tabled in Committee might cause. Therefore, I intend to introduce an amendment at Third Reading that will provide a requirement—I stress that it will be a requirement—based on Section 118 of the 1983 Act, which relates to the code of practice.

The amendment will require the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to include a statement of principles in their respective codes. I stress that it will be a requirement on the Secretary of State so to do. The amendment will also detail the key principles that the code will be expected to follow. I believe that that is a sensible way forward. It reflects the clear message that noble Lords and practitioners have given that they wish to see principles in the Bill. By requiring the Secretary of State to ensure that there are principles in the code of practice and to list in the Act the areas that the principles might cover will produce a satisfactory outcome which will not confuse but rather clarify the position. That outcome will acknowledge the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, right at the beginning on the importance of values.