Centre for Mental Health today welcomed the Government’s commitment in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward a new draft bill to modernise the Mental Health Act, but warned that plans to replace the Human Rights Act could have damaging consequences for many people with mental health difficulties, and that a partial ban on ‘conversion therapy’ was not enough.
The Mental Health Act sets the legal framework for the use of compulsion in mental health care in England and Wales. It was last updated in 2007 but dates in large part from 1983.
Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said: “The current Mental Health Act is in urgent need of modernisation. It gives too little regard to people’s rights and dignity. Its disproportionate use among racialised communities means that Black people are four times more likely to be sectioned and ten times more likely to get a Community Treatment Order when they leave hospital. It is outdated and it needs to change.
“The Mental Health Act needs to be updated to uphold people’s rights, minimise the use of coercion, put advance choice documents on a legal footing and ensure more people get access to advocacy. It needs to curb the use of Community Treatment Orders. The bill is a chance to enshrine children’s rights more clearly within the Act and to ensure that people in prison are not forced to wait for weeks and months for an urgently needed hospital bed.
“Updating the Mental Health Act can create a legal framework with clear principles that supports modern mental health care, with less reliance on coercion and more safeguards for people who are in hospital. It can reduce the risk of racial discrimination in the application of the law and ensure that people get the best possible care and treatment when they most need it. The updated Act is also an important opportunity to tackle the use of mental health legislation to detain autistic people and those with learning disabilities.
“We also welcome the Government’s plan to publish draft legislation for scrutiny before proceeding with the bill in Parliament. This will allow for the bill’s proposals and their consequences to be considered in full prior to legislation.
“But changing the law will not be enough on its own to address the inequities and injustices of our mental health system. We need to see system-wide change to address the systemic racism that leads to the disproportionate use of coercion among racialised communities. We need to boost advocacy services so that anyone in hospital or on a CTO has access to advice and support to assert their rights. And we need to modernise the facilities people are detained in, which are too often outdated and unfit for purpose.
“Alongside these vital changes, the Government needs to act on the causes of mental ill health and take heed of the rising rates of distress following both the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis. The Government’s ten year mental health and wellbeing plan is a chance to put the nation’s mental health at the heart of public policy, tackling poverty, racial injustice and the climate crisis. Putting in place a mental health policy test for all government decisions would be an important first step in that direction.
“While we welcome the Government’s stated intention in the Queen’s Speech to address the cost of living crisis, which is worsening mental health in the UK, we are concerned that the Treasury has indicated that further measures to boost incomes and reduce costs are being delayed until the autumn. In the meantime, more and more households are being pushed further into poverty, unable to make ends meet as the cost of heating and eating rises beyond benefit and wage increases. Government urgently needs to take action to increase benefit payments and the minimum wage to match inflation, and to reduce the cost of energy, food and housing.”
Sarah Hughes also warned that plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights risked undermining the rights of people with mental health difficulties: “The Human Rights Act provides important protections for all of us. We are concerned that proposals for the replacement of the current Act could be harmful for people living with mental health difficulties, especially when they are in the criminal justice system. We urge the Government to ensure that it maintains the human rights of people with mental health difficulties.”
On the pledge to ban ‘conversion therapy’, but not in relation to trans people, Sarah Hughes said: “We are concerned that the ban on conversion therapy will not offer protection to trans people from this abusive and harmful practice. We want to see a ban on all use of ‘conversion therapy’ for anyone, and we hope the Government and Parliament will legislate to offer equal protection for all.”