Last week it was reported that the Mental Health Bill had been dropped from the King’s Speech. This was the culmination of years of work on the legislation and planned reforms to the Mental Health Act of 1983 – the main piece of law that sets out when you can be detained for mental health treatment.
Six years ago, Theresa May pledged to tackle the “burning injustices” of the original act and launched an independent review. It seemed to be a real step change. New legislation was promised. After much posturing from government ministers, this promise has sadly been broken.
This is despite a draft bill being published and a pre-legislative scrutiny committee established to evaluate the progress. It was an example of cross-party working at its finest, but it is sadly now little surprise when the Conservatives drop their long-standing pledges, this time failing many thousands of patients and their families.
Four decades on from its passage, the Mental Health Act is woefully out of step with modern Britain. Black people are disproportionately impacted by it – five times more likely to be detained and eleven times more likely to be subjected to restrictive community treatment orders under the archaic legislation. Without new legislation to reform the system, people living with autism or learning disabilities will continue to fear the prospect of being locked up and detained. Patients will continue to be left voiceless. They will continue to be failed.
On the committee scrutinising the provisions in the draft bill, we heard evidence from experts across the mental health sector and service-users with lived experience. Their testimony was often harrowing. They came to the committee to give evidence and were bravely willing to relive their trauma in the hope that proactive steps would be taken to ensure better standards for future patients. This opportunity to improve services has been squandered. The disappointment is palpable.
Nonetheless, I am proud of the work we did on the joint committee, building a cross-party consensus and producing a vital list of recommendations. These included: the establishment of a mental health commissioner, to advocate for patients’ rights; a statutory right to advance choice documents, so patients would have a greater voice in their own care; and abolishing the use of community treatment orders for many people subjected to the Mental Health Act.
At no point has the government bothered to reply to these recommendations, let alone consider their importance in driving up standards for patients. Each ministerial target to respond to the committee was missed – they were first meant to respond in spring. Under Rishi Sunak, it appears the government has never had any intention of improving standards for our most vulnerable by reforming the Mental Health Act. I will not be holding my breath for change under the new Health Secretary. It is a truly shameful legacy.
I know that for many who worked tirelessly to contribute to the committee, the charities that put together detailed packs of information and the experts who gave evidence, this refusal to reply to our recommendations, and the ultimate dropping of the proposed reforms entirely, will come as a kick in the teeth.
A future Labour government must now look at these recommendations and take action to fill the void where the Conservatives have failed. The existing work and evidence must not go to waste.
Labour must seize the opportunity to establish a mental health commissioner, fight to ensure that detention for mental health patients is truly a last resort, and undo more than a decade of Tory dereliction of our mental health services.
Demand has never been higher. Services are struggling to cope and are failing to meet the needs of patients. Waiting lists for mental health treatment have now topped 1.8 million for the first time. Patients cannot access mental health treatment in their communities, leaving their symptoms to only worsen and greatly reducing the likelihood of positive outcomes.
A lack of action in parliament has real world consequences and it’s distressing to watch. For too long, the Tories have put mental health on the back-burner, scrapped their own ten-year mental health plan, ignored the recommendations of the joint committee and now ditched vital reforms.
We need a general election so that Labour can finally start the task of driving up standards in mental health care. Patients deserve a Labour government.