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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 107 (Welsh Grand Committee),

Question agreed to.


Motion made and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.


Gareth and Richard Perrett

7.12 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Some 700 residents of Halifax have given me this petition--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Will hon. Members who are not staying to hear the petition please leave quickly and quietly?

Mrs. Mahon: The petition of 700 residents of Halifax declares

To lie upon the Table.

Benefit Payments

7.14 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I wish to present a petition on behalf of my constituents and other residents of North Yorkshire. There are more than 37,000 signatories, almost 9,000 of whom come from Skipton and Ripon. The petitioners declare:

To lie upon the Table.

16 Mar 2000 : Column 616

Mentally Ill People

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

7.14 pm

Mr. Mike Wood (Batley and Spen): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to initiate the debate this evening.

Estimates vary about the prevalence of mental health problems in our society, but something of the order of between one in four and one in six adults will suffer from mental illness at some time in their lives; that is illness ranging from so-called mild depression through to schizophrenia. That means that in a constituency such as mine, for instance, between 11,000 and 16,000 people are directly affected by at least one bout of such illnesses during their lifetime.

A recent survey conducted by MIND found that 90 per cent. of respondents had household incomes of less than £10,000 a year. Most people who use mental health services live in poverty, with over 80 per cent. being economically inactive. The Government's own national service framework for mental health states that unemployed people are twice as likely to suffer depression as those who work. It could just as easily have highlighted how much more predisposed they are to self-harm, up to and including taking their own lives. For that group, loss of benefits--and, often, just the threat of that loss--can have disproportionate consequences.

The issues thrown up by such illness and poverty are wide-ranging and profound, and they pose some of the most difficult problems which I and, I suspect, most other right hon. and hon. Members become involved in through constituency casework or surgeries.

In my area of north Kirklees, we are fortunate to have a mental health service that is as good as anywhere in the country's. Last year, for instance, it received from the Prime Minister the first NHS Nye Bevan award for joint working between mental health and social services. However, even here, mistakes occur, and people fall through the net.

In the belief that care is not just about health, but about all aspects of a person's life--including housing, employment and, crucially, income--I want to draw on the experiences of three of my constituents and how they, as mentally ill people, fared in the very specific area of accessing and sustaining a claim for benefits. Those people were entitled to the benefits, just like any other citizen, but were denied them because, I would contend, our benefits system is far too inflexible, and is often inadequate, especially when confronted by the myriad problems that the mentally ill present.

I would like an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the matter is being treated seriously within the Department. I would like also a possible outline of the practical steps that are being taken to improve the kinds of situation that I am about to describe, and I would like to know that the Department is doing this work in liaison with other relevant agencies.

Constituent H is a paranoid man, living alone, who lost his job due to his illness. He quickly became so ill that he could not or would not leave the house, and therefore could not make a claim for benefits. The Benefits Agency

16 Mar 2000 : Column 617

was eventually convinced by his family to send a home visitor whom, of course, the man would not admit to his home. Having gone to those lengths, the Department contended that there was nothing more it could do.

In the end, after months of keeping him, the man's extended family could afford to do so no longer and, essentially, had to abduct him from his own home, frogmarch him to the benefit office and guide his hand as he applied for the benefit for which he was so obviously eligible and which he now receives. Surely in such a case--where there was ample medical evidence of the man's condition and its prognosis--it should not have been necessary for the family to have to act in that way to access resources that were needed to care for him.

The second of my constituents, Miss C, suffers from depression. Her benefit was ended owing to a periodic review of the so-called all-work test. She received an initial letter that baldly stated that her benefit was under review, which had a profoundly adverse effect on her already frail mental health. As I said earlier, MIND found that just the threat of loss of benefit does harm, but at one of MIND's day centres close to my constituency some 80 per cent. of the people who attend have had that experience.

Miss C was eventually convinced to undertake the required medical or review. However, like many people suffering from mental illness, she cannot articulate well the problems that her illness poses for her in her daily life. So-called medicals or reviews that exclude carers and that are conducted quickly and brusquely--so quickly and brusquely that the claimants cannot do justice to themselves--would, I am sure, be condemned by the Minister, but they happen, and often to the mentally ill. That exacerbates the fact that the tests are designed more for those suffering a physical illness than a mental one. The answer to the standard questions, "Can you dress yourself? Can you feed yourself?", might well be yes for a mentally ill person, but the person asking the questions would not necessarily understand the amount of supervision that might be needed to get the mentally ill person to eat, or how much motivation might have to be generated to ensure that the person gets dressed.

I realise that the Government intend to replace the all-work test, but whatever comes next must be run by people who have a much greater insight into, and much more training in, the problems of the mentally ill if we are to see the real improvement in service that is needed. I would like to make a bid for the process to be predicated much more on helping people, some of whom have very profound problems, than on cutting corners or saving money.

Sadly, each year in England alone, some 4,000 people commit suicide. My third constituency example is just such a case and shows how mental illness plays a part in many of those--often preventable--deaths. My constituent, Mr. T, died in tragic circumstances and his death and the inquest featured extensively in the local and national media. At this point, I wish to place on record my thanks for the intelligent and sensitive way in which my local papers, not least the Batley News, dealt with those sad and harrowing circumstances. That was of enormous comfort to his family, most of whom now live in New Zealand, who still suffer from the shock of their relative's death and have many unanswered questions

16 Mar 2000 : Column 618

about how and why their loved one died in such circumstances. In passing, I realise that it is not the responsibility of the Minister, but their shock was compounded when they were required to pay more than £235 for a transcript of the inquest, which they wanted to learn what lessons had been learned from his death.

Mr. T was an honours graduate in his forties who had suffered from schizophrenia for some years. He was hospitalised late in 1998 under the mental health legislation for reasons of self-harm. He was starving himself, and his weight had dropped from 16 stone to under 10 stone. During his period in hospital, his benefit was stopped and it was either not restarted on discharge or stopped again soon after. Because we have no access to the transcript, we cannot know for sure.

Within a matter of months, the man had starved himself to death with 9p in his pocket. When his body was discovered some weeks later, a scribbled note that lay nearby suggested that he believed that the authorities had killed him. If the hospital had notified the Benefits Agency of his discharge, or if there had been sufficient liaison between the two about the severity of his illness, my constituent would at least have had available to him the cash that was his due. It is stating the obvious to say that care in the community failed that man.

I believe that the policy introduced by the previous Government was developed for the wrong reasons, and then not properly resourced. However, the failings in what is fundamentally the right policy for mentally ill people have to be remedied quickly if more lives are not to be lost so needlessly.

At the inquest, the coroner was appalled by Mr. T's death, and suggested that there should be special DSS rules for those suffering from mental illness. I am sure that all hon. Members would welcome that, but in the meantime it might be possible to encourage relatively minor changes in staff attitudes, and to alter departmental procedures. Both could happen much more quickly, and have some effect.

We certainly need the introduction--perhaps I mean the reintroduction--of much greater discretion for staff in local DSS offices. Ministers in the Department, too, would have to have greater discretion, as too often they seem unable to intervene to right an obvious wrong in individual cases.

Not before time, society is beginning to accept the need for extra provision to improve access for citizens with physical disabilities. At most benefit offices these days, a ramp to the front door is a standard feature, but where are the ramps for people suffering mental illness? That illness is just as debilitating and life-limiting as the more obvious--and possibly more acceptable--physical illness.

Finally, I should like to place on record my thanks to organisations such as the Mental After Care Association, MIND, and my local authority welfare benefits office--especially to that office's first-rate staff members Lisa Drake and Robert Finnegan--for the help that has been extended to me in presenting this debate.

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