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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 25th July 2019.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care) 3:06 pm, 25th July 2019

Indeed, and we did try valiantly to get the Minister to accept amendments, but she would not. There is concern. It is a good thing to include 16 and 17-year-olds in the legislation, but not if there are no safeguards. There are real worries. In many cases that I have looked at, and where I continue to try to support families, parents feel ignored and helpless. They feel that mental health hospitals act without reference to the people who know the young person best.

One area in which Sir Simon did not make recommendations was the definition of a mental disorder. Specifically, he concluded that it was not appropriate for his review to decide whether autistic people should remain within the scope of the Act purely because of their autism. I agree with Sir Simon that that is a complex topic, but we should not let it be an excuse for inaction. Autism is not a mental health condition, but the Mental Health Act treats it as though it is. As a result, there are 1,150 autistic people in in-patient mental health facilities. A proportion of them will have mental health conditions that require treatment, but it should never happen that someone is detained purely because they are autistic or because they present with behaviour that could be challenging. I know of many cases where that is happening.

We all saw the deeply disturbing BBC “Panorama” programme on Whorlton Hall, which revealed the shocking treatment that autistic people were subjected to while detained in mental health hospitals. I am sure we would all agree that that treatment is simply unacceptable, but we must do more to prevent it. The best way of doing that is to ensure that people are not put into in-patient environments unnecessarily. If someone does not have a mental health condition that is being treated, they should not be held under the Mental Health Act. Can the Minister confirm that when the Government bring forward the proposals in the review, they will go further than Sir Simon and commit to ending the outdated practice of treating autism in the same way as mental health conditions?

It is eight months since Sir Simon’s final review was published, although it does not seem like it. He made more than 150 recommendations. We did not expect the Government to respond to all of them straight away, but in eight months they have responded to fewer than a dozen recommendations. The other 140 apparently have to wait for the White Paper. We have heard about more reviews from the new Prime Minister this morning. All we seem to get is more rounds of consultation and more reviews, but Sir Simon consulted widely during the review. His review was informed by the experiences of 988 people, including 467 service users—the inclusion of service users is praiseworthy—and evidence from 75 organisations and 90 professionals working in the field. I hope that that included social workers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North for making such a strong case for the involvement of social workers; I agree with him.

The only reason I can see for further consultation would be if the Government were planning to go further on some of the recommendations than Sir Simon did—for example, in removing autism from the scope of the Act. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the case? If not, can she tell us why she feels that the consultation that Sir Simon carried out is insufficient? Surely it would be better to publish a draft Bill and carry out pre-legislative scrutiny in the normal way than to do what has become known as kicking the can down the road. Six months ago we were promised a new set of guidance on the Mental Capacity Act, but that has not been mentioned at all since then. Those are the things that should be coming forward.

We have also been told that there will be a mental health White Paper to implement the findings of the review—we find ourselves waiting for Green Papers and White Papers. Someone could be forgiven for looking at that and thinking that the Government simply do not care about people waiting for much-needed reforms. I know that the Minister cares, but do her Government care? Can she give us a date for the publication of the Government’s mental health White Paper? It is popular to say a season or the end of the year, but a date is more useful to work with. I realise that it is a time of great uncertainty for Government Ministers—I hope that we will see this Minister in her place in future—but a firm date would help us to hold the Government to account should they let their focus slip.

People with mental health conditions have been let down for too long. The review represents a rare opportunity to make changes that have cross-party support—the consensus in this debate has been encouraging—to a system that does not work properly. I hope that the Minister, and the incoming Government, do not waste this opportunity by delaying it further, which would leave people stuck in a system that is harming, not helping, them.