The Labour Party’s promise to go ahead with reforms to the Mental Health Act comes shortly after a review into the use of segregation in psychiatric units for people with learning disabilities or autism
"The treatment of people with autism and learning disabilities under this outdated legislation disgraces our society. The way in which Black people are disproportionately impacted is indefensible. The law is not fit for purpose and must change." Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary
The Labour Party has promised to implement planned reforms to the Mental Health Act, after they were dropped from last week’s King’s Speech.
The reforms were part of the 2017 and 2019 Conservative manifestos, and last year a white paper was published setting out the plans in detail. The changes would have focused on the part of the act that allows people in mental health crisis to be “sectioned” – detained against their will. They would have addressed inequalities that mean Black people are four times more likely to be sectioned under the Act, and would have made it easier for people with learning disabilities and autism to be discharged from hospital. At present people with learning disabilities and autism can be sectioned, even if they don’t have a mental health condition. More than 2,000 are held as inpatients on wards that campaigners say do not offer appropriate care or treatment.
Last week a government-commissioned report into the use of long-term segregation in psychiatric wards for people with learning disabilities or autism called for an immediate end to its use for under-18s. It said the practice should be properly named “solitary confinement” and limited to 15 days for adults.
The review, which was chaired by Baroness Hollins, was announced in November 2019. It looked at the care and treatment of 191 people who were detained in long-term segregation between November 2019 and March 2023. In her final report, she wrote: “My heart breaks that after such a long period of work, the care and outcomes for people with a learning disability and autistic people are still so poor, and the very initiatives which are improving their situations are yet to secure the essential funding required to continue this important work.”
The government responded by saying it was “committed to reducing the use of long-term segregation for people with a learning disability and autistic people.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “The next Labour government will reform the Mental Health Act in our first King’s Speech. The treatment of people with autism and learning disabilities under this outdated legislation disgraces our society. The way in which Black people are disproportionately impacted is indefensible. The law is not fit for purpose and must change. There is no excuse for Rishi Sunak’s delay to fulfil the manifesto promise he was elected on.”
Streeting said the party would promise “timely support” for those needing mental health services, including recruiting “thousands more mental health professionals, paid for by abolishing tax loopholes for private equity”.
Writing in the Times today, Ben McCay, who has a learning disability and is co-chair of the charity My Life My Choice, said that he had heard shocking stories about patients in mental health settings experiencing restraint, abuse and isolation.
McCay wrote: “When myself and others in the learning disabled community heard that the King’s Speech failed to include a long-promised reform of the Mental Health Act, we breathed a collective sigh of disappointment. It’s the Mental Health Act 1983 that keeps people sectioned in prison-like conditions, where all too often they suffer neglect …Some people have been stuck in hospitals for over 20 years. People could get less time in prison for murder. We are not criminals.”
Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Mind, said the government had “broken its promise”, adding: “This is further evidence of how little regard the current 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 that would help people at their most unwell has been de-prioritised.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was committed to ensuring that people with a learning disability and autistic people were able to live fulfilling lives in their community and that the number of such inpatients had fallen by 30% since 2015.
The reforms to the Mental Health Act, proposed as far back as 2017, are much-needed, and we welcome the Labour Party’s commitment to implementing them. We also welcome the proposals in Baroness Hollins’s review to restrict the practice of segregation on psychiatric wards for people with learning disabilities or autism. As Ben McCay writes, is wrong that vulnerable people who have committed no crime are kept in conditions of neglect and isolation.