Improving attitudes to mental health

 

It is proverbial that lunatics, criminals and peers are banned from serving as MPs; but today in the Commons, the Conservative Gavin Barwell won cross party support for his efforts to cut through the tangle of contradictory and out of date legislation around the question of MPs' mental health.

His private members' bill is aimed at quashing discrimination against people with mental health problems from serving as company directors or jurors, as well as in the Commons. He argues that the law should focus on capacity to perform the role - and not simply stigmatise mental illness.

Gavin Barwell The Conservative MP introduced the bill to the Commons where it received second reading

Too many people were scared to talk about their mental health - or even seek treatment, he warned.

No MP has been removed on grounds of mental health since Dr Charles Leach during World War I. But there was a fear that it deterred MPs from disclosing mental health problems or even seeking treatment - and since a quarter of adults would suffer from depression, it could discourage a large proportion of the population from seeking to serve.

Mr Barwell raised a laugh by quoting a common law provision that "idiots" could not serve in the Commons - it would come as a surprise to some constituents, he said. But he wanted that abolished too, in case it was used against people who'd suffered from mental health problems.

He pointed out that the law was actually tougher on people who had suffered from, and maybe recovered from, problems like depression, than it was on MPs who were sent to prison - that would not disqualify an MP unless the sentence was for a year or more. The bill - supported by the deputy prime minister and the shadow health secretary among others - has been given a second reading. The Conservative Charles Walker, who discussed his own experience of OCD in the Commons in June, predicted Mr Barwell could rise to be a Cabinet minister - but added this bill might be the most important achievement of his career, if it became law.

Elsewhere, the reshuffle ripples continue: several people across the blogosphere have noted the exodus of MPs from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, following promotions to the government or (in the case of Labour's Tom Watson) the end of the phone-hacking inquiry. The Culture Committee is certainly an interesting place to serve, but spare a thought for the Transport Committee, where the departure of Paul Maynard and Julian Sturdy creates two vacancies at a time when the committee is pondering the red-hot issue of airport capacity in the south-east.

It is not clear when the Conservatives will elect replacements and even less clear who we will get...but it may be that partisans on either side of the argument may try for a seat on the committee - and given the Boris v Dave overtones, it could even become a proxy leadership battle.

Meanwhile the government whips were thwarted, yesterday, when they attempted to replace Geoffrey Clifton-Brown as chair of an obscure but important organ, the Committee of Selection. (The committee chooses the MPs who serve on Public Bill Committees, which scrutinise legislation in detail.)

A motion to replace him with the recently de-frocked Tory whip, Bill Wiggin, appeared on the Order Paper on Thursday for decision without debate, and was promptly "objected" by Labour's Thomas Docherty.

The shout of "object" prevents a Commons motion from being nodded through, and the question now is whether and when the whips make another attempt. Tory backbenchers suspect that then move is a sweetener for Mr Wiggin, to compensate him for his reshuffle demotion, and a punishment for Mr Clifton-Brown for his role in organising the Lords rebellion before the summer break.

There seem to be a number of people who will not allow the change to the committee membership without, at least, a debate - and they would use it to argue that the chair should be elected, rather than appointed.

 
Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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