New act is ‘watershed moment’ in fight against mental health stigma


theweek120by150The passing of new legislation that scraps archaic laws that discriminated against people with mental health conditions in business and public life is a “watershed moment” in the fight against stigma, say campaigners and MPs.

The Mental Health (Discrimination) Act, sponsored by the Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, received royal assent this week.

The legislation was first introduced in the Lords by the crossbench peer Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, who spoke publicly last summer about his own depression.

The act overturns discriminatory legislation that in some circumstances could prevent people with mental health conditions serving on juries, as company directors, and as MPs or members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly.

Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who spoke about his own mental health condition in the Commons last June, told Disability News Service he was “delighted” the bill had now become law.

He said: “It will certainly have an impact. It is part of the process of tearing down the walls put up by stigma.”

Walker, who chairs the all party parliamentary group on mental health, particularly welcomed the lifting of the automatic ban on serving as a juror, which he said was “unacceptable”.

He said: “There is a still a long, long, long way to go, but this is a very important step.”

Walker said he hoped the new act would lead to MPs feeling more confident in “taking up and campaigning on issues around mental health” and being “more willing to make noise about it”.

Barwell said in a statement: “I’m very proud that my bill has become law, but in truth this is only the beginning. As a society we still have a long way to go to tackle the forms of discrimination and the inequalities that people with mental illness face.”

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, which campaigns to change the law to allow job-sharing MPs, welcomed the new act, but said it was “about removing one step in a giant edifice which prevents disabled people getting access to politics”.

She added: “One of the next steps is removing the requirement for MPs to work full-time. This prevents a lot of people from standing for Parliament.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, which has campaigned for years for the new laws, said it was a “hugely important day for anyone affected by mental health problems and a watershed moment for attitudes to mental health”.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said he had been “delighted” to see the strong cross-party support for the bill in both the Lords and the Commons, and he said it was “high time Britain as a nation stood up against the stigma attached to mental illness”.

The new act means MPs – as well as members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly – will no longer automatically lose their seat if detained under the Mental Health Act for longer than six months

It will also mean that someone with a mental health condition will no longer be automatically ineligible for jury service – in England and Wales – while it will now be illegal for a company director to be removed from their post because of their mental ill-health.

28 February 2013