Mental Health Act 1983 — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:58 pm on 25th July 2019.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee 1:58 pm, 25th July 2019

Thank you, Ms Buck, for calling me so early in this debate. I am sure that I speak for everybody who listened to the remarkable speech of Neil Coyle when I say that it was a privilege to do so. We should all be immensely grateful to him for illustrating the important policy points that he had to make by means of his agonising experiences in his immediate family in his very early years. We all thank him for it.

Given how many hon. Members wish to contribute, I will speak very briefly. I note that the hon. Gentleman’s speech was briefly interrupted by some shouting outside the Chamber to do with Brexit; it seems to be a common theme that mental health debates tend to happen at times when they are overshadowed by other issues. For example, when I became a Member of this House in 1997, I came second in the private Member’s Bill ballot. I chose to introduce the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, which was designed to achieve improvements for people who suffered catastrophic breakdowns such that they needed to be admitted to acute mental health units.

At that time, the person who came first in the ballot chose to address a subject of massive national importance, namely the banning of hunting with hounds, and I could not help but notice the contrast between the packed main Chamber on the Friday that was considering the welfare of foxes and the rather more thinly occupied main Chamber a week later, as was customary, when we were trying to consider the welfare of human beings. It was ever thus.

The points at issue then are, to some extent, still points at issue now. They have already been touched upon, at least in part, in the excellent opening speech that we have all heard. My particular concern was the need for there to be separate therapeutic environments for people who had to be admitted to acute units who suffered from very different types of mental illness. In other words, the idea that somebody suffering from acute depression should be cheek-by-jowl with somebody suffering regular psychotic outbursts was obviously a recipe to make a very serious situation even worse.

While I was doing the research for that debate, it was drawn to my attention by staff at acute units that their particular nightmare was the thought of what would happen if there was inadequate staffing coupled with mixed-sex wards. I was really rather shocked and shaken today to hear the statistics cited by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark about the level of danger of sexual assault among in-patients, because for quite a number of years I and various other colleagues waged a campaign to abolish mixed-sex wards in mental health in-patient facilities. At first there was talk of separate bays, if I recall correctly, which by no means would have answered the necessities of the problem. And successive Governments kept saying that they would do it, and even that they had done it, so it is particularly disturbing to hear about the level of concern that still exists about this issue.

The question of inadequate numbers of beds has already been touched upon by the hon. Gentleman. It has to be said that, for once, this is not the responsibility or fault of Government, because after the closure of so many of the large asylums, the pendulum—in my opinion, and I am not an expert; I have to say that I am not a medical doctor—swung too far the opposite way.

I remember, in the New Forest area, having to fight a bitter campaign—which ultimately failed—to prevent a 35% reduction in in-patient beds in acute units. If I remember correctly, two of five units were closed. We were prepared to compromise and say, “Close one of the two units. Close 16 of the beds, rather than 32, and see how you get on,” but the authorities would not listen and they forced the closures through. It was the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which later became notorious in the mental health sphere for other reasons, that forced through the closure of all these beds, and the system has been rammed and overflowing, and under excessive pressure, ever since.

There was another knock-on effect of the swinging of the pendulum too far back from the correct policy of closing the larger asylums, and that was that, by having fewer permanent facilities, we lost the ability to have what was technically—or maybe not very technically—known as the “revolving door”. This was the idea that, yes, if we could get more people back in society, so that they could make their own way and live their lives freely and without having to be in-patients, the very existence of a network of permanent establishments—albeit for other purposes—meant that there were always plenty of opportunities, so that if somebody felt that a trough was coming they could seek help easily for, as it were, almost a top-up of treatment, just for a few days. That would then set them back on track and it meant that they would not suffer—