Plans to overhaul the Mental Health Act, set out in a White Paper last year, were omitted from yesterday’s King’s Speech
"There could not be a worse time to abandon this bill, especially given the recent string of exposés revealing unsafe mental health care across the country. People with mental health problems, countless professionals and other experts poured huge amounts of time, effort and resource into reforming this legislation to make it fit for the 21st century. Their voices are being ignored.” Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive, Mind
Campaigners have expressed their dismay at the omission in the King’s Speech of long-promised plans to reform the Mental Health Act.
The reforms, which were included in the 2017 and 2019 Conservative manifestos, would have made it mandatory for those using the powers of the Act to detain people to take into account racial inequalities. (Currently Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.) It would also have introduced a new right to let patients who have been ill set out how they want to be cared for when they fall into crisis. The White Paper setting out the government’s plans was published in June 2022.
Steve Brine MP, chair of the parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee, said it was “disappointing that the government has failed to bring forward legislation to overhaul the Mental Health Act.” He added: “The draft bill, among its planned reforms, would outlaw the inappropriate detention of people with learning disabilities and autism. Without change, too many people will continue to be held in secure units, often for years at a time. These reforms are long overdue.”
The Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker, a long-term advocate for mental health services, said it was a “great shame” that the reforms had been dropped from the King’s Speech, as a lot of the work on the bill had already been carried out. He said: “A large amount of the bill focuses on the most desperate [patients] – those most prone to be sent to detained environments. It focuses on how we look after the very illest people in society and how we try to respect their wishes when they’re most ill – how they would like to be treated as human beings, as well as patients.”
Patients subjected to inhumane treatment
The charity Mind has previously warned that patients in psychiatric units are being subjected to inhumane treatment, including sedation and prolonged isolation. One former patient, Tiwa, told the Express of how she had been traumatised after being sectioned under the Act as a teenager. She said that in one psychiatric unit, staff would try to calm agitated patients by leaving a patient to lie on a crash mat on the floor, as a group of staff pinned them down, limb by limb, and then ran out of the room after counting down from 10. Tiwa told the newspaper about one particularly distressing experience: “I was left alone in seclusion, and I was so stressed, I bit into my arm for over an hour, so hard that I drew blood and ended up with an infection.”
Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said that the “long overdue” bill would have provided a “chance to overhaul the way the system works when people are in a mental health crisis.” She added: “It is an opportunity to address the deep racial injustices in the use of the Act, with Black people being four times more likely to be detained. It is also a crucial chance to prevent people being stripped of their dignity, voice and independence when they are sectioned. That chance has now been missed, and the UK government has broken its promise to thousands of people, their loved ones and the nation as a whole to reform the Act.
“This is further evidence of how little regard the current UK government has for mental health. More than 50,000 people were held under the Mental Health Act last year, so it is incomprehensible that legislation which would help people at their most unwell has been de-prioritised. There could not be a worse time to abandon this bill, especially given the recent string of exposés revealing unsafe mental health care across the country.
“People with mental health problems, countless professionals and other experts poured huge amounts of time, effort and resource into reforming this legislation to make it fit for the 21st century. Their voices are being ignored.”
We share the disappointment of campaigners that the plans to overhaul the Mental Health Act have been shelved. Reform is long overdue, and the plans set out in last year’s White Paper would have made a real difference to the lives of many mentally unwell people by addressing racial inequalities and putting the patient at the heart of care. The decision to drop the bill from the King’s Speech means that reform will not happen before the next general election. There is cross-party support for change, and we hope that all the main political parties will include a pledge to introduce the new bill in the next parliament.