Comment: Time to reform our shameful mental health laws

By Gavin Barwell MP

Shortly after the Queen's Speech and the opening of parliament, I was drawn fourth in the private member's bill ballot. It's fairly rare for a backbench MP to have the opportunity to change the law of this country and there were hundreds of issues that I could have taken forward, so I took my time and thought long and hard about what I wanted to bring forward. I eventually settled on the mental health discrimination (2) nill, a cause that is close to my heart.

The purpose of the bill is very simple: to remove the last significant form of discrimination in law in our society. I can't emphasise that enough. Our country has changed a huge amount since I was a young child. I remember the first Asian family moving into our road when I was growing up. Some of the people who lived in our road put pressure on the people selling their house not to sell to an Asian family, something unthinkable under today's social mores. I also remember the arguments about section 28 and the language that was used in my school playground. We have made a huge amount of progress since then as a country, partly as a result of legislation passed by the government and partly by changing attitudes – and I strongly believed that former may have encouraged the latter.

To our shame, the law still discriminates against those with a mental health condition. An MP or a company director can be removed from their job as a result of a mental health condition even if they go on to make a full recovery. Many people who are perfectly capable of performing jury service are disbarred from doing so. If my private member's bill is approved by the House of Commons, we will look back in a few years' time and be amazed that this archaic nonsense was on the statute book in 2012.

One in four of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime; three in four of us will see a member of our immediate family experience such a condition. These numbers have been increasing because, while the physical conditions in which we live and work have improved, our lives are busier and much more stressful. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 more people will be affected by depression than any other health condition. The law as it stands sends out the message that if someone has a mental health condition their contribution to public life is not welcome. This cannot be permitted and my bill hopes to address this.

In the well-reported debate on mental health of June 14th shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said that Labour would also support the bill, and I'm grateful for his commitment. The debate was a prime example of the House of Commons coming to a consensus about an important issue and demonstrated the best of what we have to offer the country. Times like this should not be forgotten.

If my bill is passed by parliament, companies and our courts will benefit directly from the involvement of people with experience of mental health conditions – as our recent debate was by contributions from my colleagues Charles Walker MP and Kevan Jones MP. A school may have a pupil with a mental health condition; in a court case, the accused's state of mind may be a key issue. How much better will that school be if a governor has personal experience with mental health? How much better will that court case be if there is a juror with the necessary experience and knowledge that others may not necessarily have?

More importantly, the bill will send a clear message that discrimination is wrong: people have a right to be judged as individuals, not labelled or stereotyped based on misunderstood ideas. In September, the excellent Time to Change campaign, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, surveyed 2,700 people with mental health conditions. Of those, 80% said that they had experienced discrimination, two-thirds were too scared to tell their employer, 62% were too scared to tell their friends and, worst of all, more than a third were too scared to seek professional help.

Having a mental health condition is nothing to be ashamed of or to keep a secret. It is high time we dragged the law of this land into the 21st century.

Gavin Barwell is the Conservative MP for Croydon Central

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