There are two fallacies to which I strongly object. First, there is the idea that the world is divided into those who have perfect mental health and those who do not—hands-up anybody in the Chamber who has got perfect mental health. It is undoubtedly the case that some people cannot do certain kinds of work because of mental health issues, of course, but it is also the case that many people work despite having mental health issues; they might work through mental health issues with occasional mental health episodes while at work, and some people will be oblivious to the mental health issues they have. It is a fallacy to think there are people

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who are available for work with perfect mental health, and those who are unavailable for work, who lack perfect mental health.

The second fallacy is that having an acute episode of a mental health issue permanently disqualifies someone from work. That must be resisted entirely. The philosopher Nietzsche said that what does not destroy us makes us stronger, and there is plenty of evidence to support that; some people are strengthened by having had a mental health problem. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) has been able to work very satisfactorily for his constituents and in all sorts of jobs, which serves to show that people can work through chronic mental health problems. I worked with colleagues in the teaching profession who had obsessive compulsive disorder. Lots of people manage to cope with, and overcome, chronic mental health issues and go back to work.

Belief in either of those fallacies leads to the unfair discrimination that the Bill seeks to tackle. Discrimination itself is not a bad thing, however. We frequently need to discriminate; we do so all the time. Older Members will remember the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about the one-legged man applying for a film role as Tarzan, and we can think of circumstances in which having certain mental health issues would disqualify people from following a profession: it is probably not a good idea for those with a phobia of heights to apply for a job in the Shard, and it might well be inadvisable for those with suicidal tendencies to apply for a post involving firearms. The generalised stigma that prevails throughout wider society is wholly inappropriate, however.

I looked up the Mental Health Act 1983. Its provisions apply not to MPs with mental health problems, but to MPs who are subject to compulsory detention under that Act, such as, perhaps, those with suicidal impulses or those with delusions and hallucinations, and where the prognosis is poor. The question then is what to do. We are torn between discrimination, which we reject, and the need to make sure people have proper and adequate representation. That question requires a solution of some subtlety. As has been said, this is not an issue of mental health; it is an issue of the capacity of an MP, and to make it merely an issue about mental health is pure discrimination.

10.56 am

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): It is an honour to take part in this debate on a Bill that, at a stroke, will make huge leaps forward in how we approach mental health in respect of people who serve in this House, on a jury or as a company director, and in how we address the role that people with mental health conditions play in our society.

The previous speaker, the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh), is absolutely right: there is no binary divide in our society between those who have mental health and those who do not—just as, in fact, there is no binary divide in terms of disability either. It is all a question of degree, and it is important that we, as legislators, send that message out from this place loud and clear both to society in general and in order to express our support for all the organisations in this field. Many of us work with organisations such as

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Mind, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the many disability organisations that battle every day to get that message across. There is no such thing as normal. We are all unique; we all bring our own qualities to this place, and to whatever walk of life we have chosen. Those qualities, however idiosyncratic they may be, should be celebrated, not hidden.

That is why I am delighted to be here to support this Bill introduced by my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). I have known him for many years; he is a man of great integrity. I know that he introduces this Bill because he, like all of us here, genuinely believes that now is the time to make progress on these issues.

If someone breaks a leg, they get hospital treatment and support not only from the medical services, but from family and friends—there will be a lot of “get well” cards and sympathy and encouragement. When a mental health episode occurs, however, things are far too often rather different. Other people—including friends, sometimes—often have difficulty dealing with it. That is due to centuries of stigma about mental health conditions.

It is not so long ago that people who had poor eyesight were seen as lesser creatures with a disability. I see that a lot of us today are wearing glasses; that is entirely part of the human condition—it is part of who we are. A simple but important analogy can be drawn between that and the situation with regard to mental health.

Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend must not allow the wearing of glasses to be the only evidence that someone is very short-sighted. I can assure all Members of the House that, were it not for contact lenses, I would be completely unable to find my way to the Chamber.

Mr Buckland: I must confess that I am one of a large number of people who are rather squeamish about the concept of contact lenses, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making a good point about invisible conditions, which is another important analogy. We need to understand and have a greater awareness of invisible disabilities such as autism, and you will know of my great interest in that subject, Mr Deputy Speaker.

A significant proportion of all our constituents will have at some time suffered from and reported a mental health condition. In Swindon, the proportion of the GP-registered population with mental health needs in 2010-11 was just over 13%. Some 0.7% of the population were described as having a mental health problem, and 12.4% were suffering from depression. More than one in eight registered patients in the borough of Swindon, which has a population of over 200,000 people, have advised their doctor about a mental health condition. That is not something we can put in a box in a corner and forget about; it is something all around us, visible or invisible, that we need to accept, embrace and understand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central rightly pointed out that one significant anomaly in the law—the position with regard to school governors—has already been amended this year, and I am delighted that the Government were able to bring that discrimination to an end. That brings into ever more stark relief the outdated and archaic nature of the provisions that the Bill seeks to repeal.

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Dame Anne Begg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, so long as we discriminate against MPs, jurors or company directors, it is much easier for employers to discriminate against someone with a history of mental illness, which flies in the face of the Government’s avowed intention of getting people who are presently being declared fit for work into work when actually the biggest barrier is not their history of mental illness, but the attitude of the employer who refuses to employ them?

Mr Buckland: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that important point. She is entirely right. It is a question not just of removing legislative barriers, but of encouraging a change in culture. Owing to a lack of understanding, frankly, far too many businesses and organisations still display that outdated and unfortunate response to those with mental health conditions.

Mr Charles Walker: Good practice needs to be recognised, and I am pleased to report that next week Legal and General is hosting a major conference in the City about mental health and tackling stigma. I believe that the company should be congratulated for doing that, particularly in the City, where there is a sort of macho culture in which people deny any weakness in case their colleagues think the worse of them.

Mr Buckland: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The equation of mental health problems with weakness is something we must destroy utterly. We all know about that culture in the City, and it exists elsewhere. Organisations such as Legal and General and Swindon’s Mindful Employer network, an excellent organisation that brings together companies large and small in my constituency to encourage and share best practice with regard to employees with stress or mental health and other related conditions, can demonstrate the way to go when it comes to dealing with these conditions.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I am greatly enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. His point about the idea of mental illness being equated with weakness brings to mind a famous radio lecture given by Viscount Slim of Burma, who pointed out that even the most courageous warriors will eventually break down if they are not rested and supported by their commanding officers and, indeed, that courage is a little like a bank account: one can be overdrawn for a certain amount of time, but not indefinitely. Some of the bravest and most courageous people are just as liable to mental breakdown if they are not properly understood and supported as somebody who would never for a moment go into those hazardous situations.

Mr Buckland: My hon. Friend brings a great hero of mine to our attention: Field Marshal the Viscount Slim, leader of the forgotten army, a man who led an outstandingly courageous operation in the far east. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to bring that huge experience to bear in this debate, which allows me to make an important point. We must be very careful when we use words such as “vulnerable”, because many people I know who have mental health conditions—I am sure other Members of the House know such people—would

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not like to be described as vulnerable. Often they are very tough people indeed who have gone through the toughest of circumstances.

I make that point because a good-natured and well-intentioned approach that describes people with mental health conditions as vulnerable brings with it a danger that the vulnerability becomes the basis by which, rather than encouraging and enabling such people to engage fully in society and public life, we assume that they need to be looked after in a different way and separated from mainstream society. Such a view is only a short step away from the old thinking about institutionalisation—the thinking of previous generations, which did so much harm and damage to people with mental health conditions. Although it is undeniable that people with disabilities or mental health conditions can find themselves in vulnerable situations, that is very different from making glib assumptions about their vulnerability.

The Bill would be a straightforward and simple piece of legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) said, it would also reduce and repeal legislation—something that I, as a Conservative, am always happy to support. In three particular respects it deals with provisions that are not only discriminatory, but wholly superfluous. The provision relating to Members of Parliament, as has already been noted, is not only dangerous, with the additional vice of potentially driving hon. Members to deny mental health problems, as in the light of the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which allows for a person lacking capacity to be detained without losing their seat, section 141 is utterly redundant. On the principle that redundant legislation is bad law, we as legislators should act swiftly to remove such a provision.

It has been reported today that people with stressful jobs in which the ability to control events is limited—I most definitely include being a Member of Parliament in that category—are at a 23% greater risk of having a heart attack. We really would be idiots in this place if we denied the possibility that the mental health of hon. Members is not invulnerable. In my opinion the 2005 Act caters well for cases in which, sadly, detention for mental health reasons is the only alternative available but, importantly, it does not allow the automatic vacation of a seat because of the fact of a mental health condition. That is the important distinction that we must draw between the mere fact of a condition and the question of capacity. The two things are very different.

As you probably know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have had more than my fair share of experience of dealing with the great British jury, to quote the words of W.S. Gilbert, whether I have been sitting as a Crown court recorder or appearing as counsel in criminal cases. I say with all the experience that I can muster that the court system is perfectly capable of catering for and dealing with people with conditions—sometimes lifelong ones—that can be managed by the administration of medication.

When somebody with diabetes, or another type of physical condition managed by regular medication, comes to the court, the well adopted practice is for sittings and administrative arrangements to be adjusted so that the person’s needs can be accommodated, they can take their medication and can serve as a juror. In other words, no assumption is made that, just because a potential juror has a physical condition or disability, they cannot serve as a juror.

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The assumption in the Juries Act 1974 about mental health is wholly wrong. The blanket ban serves not only to reinforce stigma, but devalues the contribution that people with mental health conditions make to society and can make as jurors. In my humble opinion, there is no more important public service for an individual than to serve on a jury in judgment over their fellow citizen. To drive underground necessary disclosure of some mental health conditions that could affect the capacity to serve is, in my view, what is happening now—inevitably, as result of the outdated provisions in the 1974 Act. That is why those provisions must go and why I particularly welcome the Bill.

Mr Charles Walker: May I take my hon. Friend back to his earlier comment that on occasions he felt a victim of events in this place? Today, with this excellent speech, as on so many other days, he is driving events and is to congratulated for it.

Mr Buckland: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a friend indeed.

I turn to the final provision, which relates to company directors. The proposed removal of the provisions in the schedules to the Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008 has the function of removing not only discriminatory provisions but unnecessary ones. Why is that? It is because the model articles themselves already contain provision for the termination of a director’s appointment if a registered GP is of the opinion that that person has become physically or mentally incapable as a director and may be so for more than three months.

The provisions are a complete waste of time. They need to be removed for the sake of simplicity. Frankly, this is another example of removing unnecessary red tape and burdens when it comes to the setting up and creation of a business. From a practical point of view, the removal is effective and necessary. Let me also deal briefly with the existing provisions on orders made by the Court of Protection. Those orders are based on a lack of mental capacity, not the mere fact of a mental health condition.

I have mentioned that difference before, and I will say it again—I will keep saying it until everybody understands. Having a mental health condition does not mean that someone cannot play their full part in our society. That is why I warmly welcome the Bill as a real step forward, on a day of honour for the House.

11.14 am

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), whom I have known for nearly 20 years, for securing the Second Reading of the Bill, which I am here to support because it is a useful and well made opportunity to address mental health conditions and try to reduce their stigma.

Mental health has risen up the political and national agenda in the past two or three years. I have taken a keen interest in the issue, especially as far as our armed forces are concerned. My constituency of Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is the home of 3 Commando Brigade, which comprises the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and 29 Commando.

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The decision to enact the armed forces covenant showed Parliament’s clear view that mental health is incredibly important for our armed forces. As a country, we have moved on significantly from the time of the first world war, when 306 soldiers were executed for desertion as they were considered to be cowards. They were shot for having mental health problems, and I find that unacceptable. Following the Shot at Dawn campaign, which claimed that soldiers were blameless because severe psychological trauma rendered them physically unable to cope with the shocking scenes they had witnessed, the previous Labour Government pardoned all those 306 soldiers in 2006. I thank them for that.

Today, we recognise that our soldiers’ mental health has often been damaged by their combat experiences in defending our country. I am told by the excellent charity Combat Stress that a condition can take up to 15 years to become apparent. On occasion, a condition can arise at the very end, when people have finished their physical working careers; dealing with that in one’s later years must be very traumatic.

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): Last year I received a moving letter from a young officer constituent of mine who was serving in Helmand province. He stated that his predominant concern was the provision of mental health support to troops who had finished their service. He stressed how important such support was and said they should not be discriminated against if problems emerged in later life.

Oliver Colvile: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I should add that serving in the armed forces can be just one of several careers. A condition may still be lying underneath the surface as someone moves from the armed services into another job, and that could have a severe impact on their subsequent career. We need to make sure that the stigma is taken away.

June’s mental health debate attracted a large amount of national media and press attention, especially due to the brave remarks and admissions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I thank them for doing so. It was a first—the first time that any Members had made such comments.

The Bill repeals section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, a copy of which I have here with me; I have had a flick through it in the past few days. The section deals with the disqualification for mental health reasons of MPs from Parliament and devolved bodies and of people from serving on juries. Hopefully, that will be another step in helping remove the stigma of people suffering from mental health problems, will create a less judgmental society and will stop mental health discrimination.

Mental health sickness, like most physical ailments, is relative. I shall let Members in on a secret—people can come out of it. It is not a life sentence; it is a veil, a wall and a pain barrier that needs to be worked through, obviously with a lot of help. I hope that by repealing the section, we can help remove the discrimination and make sure that people who have mental health challenges feel they can contribute to both society and decisions.