Parties unite to tackle ‘last legal form of discrimination’


Both the government and opposition have backed a bill that would scrap laws that discriminate against people with mental health conditions in business and public life.

The mental health (discrimination) bill would overturn discriminatory mental health legislation affecting MPs, school governors, company directors and would-be jury members.

The bill received its second Commons reading on Friday (14 September), after being introduced as a private member’s bill by the Conservative MP Gavin Barwell.

Barwell said he had decided to introduce the bill partly because two of his closest friends had mental health conditions, while numerous constituents had come to him for help with mental health issues, including some who were “distressed and struggling with Atos work capability assessments”.

He said his bill – first introduced in the Lords by the crossbench peer Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, who spoke publicly this summer about his own depression – would “tackle the last legal form of discrimination in our society”.

He said: “A member of parliament or company director can be removed from their job because of mental ill-health, even if they go on to make a full recovery, and many people who are perfectly capable of performing jury service are ineligible to do so.

“As it stands, the law sends out a clear message that if someone has a mental health condition, their contribution to public life is not welcome, and that is an affront to a decent, civilised society.”

Dame Anne Begg, the Labour MP, who uses a wheelchair, said there had been those previously who had said a deaf person could not become an MP, until Labour’s Jack Ashley proved them wrong, and that a blind person could not cope with parliament, until her party colleague David Blunkett.

Then there were those who believed that someone who used a wheelchair “would not have the stamina and the strength” to be an MP, until she herself was elected, and those who thought that someone with cerebral palsy and a speech impediment would not be understood, until the election of the Conservative MP Paul Maynard in 2010.

She said the Commons authorities had made the necessary adjustments in each case, “and so it should be for people who might have problems with their mental health”.

Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who spoke about his own mental health condition in the Commons in June, said the debate meant it was “a day of celebration” and “possibly the greatest day of my life”.

Kevan Jones, the Labour MP who also spoke out in June about his mental health condition, said: “This is about trying to lift the stigma that, unfortunately, even in 2012, still attaches to mental health, and about helping people to come forward to get the support that they need.”

Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “In having this debate, we signify that attitudes have changed, but we are also helping to move those attitudes on.”

She added: “This is an important bill and I am glad to support it on behalf of my party and our entire health team.”

Chloe Smith, the Conservative parliamentary secretary to the Cabinet Office, said the bill had the “full backing” of the government, and that “tackling stigma and discrimination is at the heart of the government’s mental health strategy”.

The bill would mean MPs would no longer automatically lose their seat if they were detained under the Mental Health Act for longer than six months, while people with mental health conditions would no longer be disqualified from serving as school governors if they had been detained under the act.

And anyone with a mental health condition would no longer be automatically ineligible for jury service – which applies only to England and Wales – or to act as a company director.

The government has already dealt with the school governor ban by changing regulations.

17 September 2012


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