Charles Walker backs Mental Health Discrimination Bill

Charles Walker MP speaking in the House of Commons

Charles Walker backs a Private Member’s Bill to reduce the stigma and negative perceptions associated with mental illness. The Bill would also repeal laws that can prevent people with mental health conditions from serving as Members of Parliament, jurors, or company directors.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you very much for calling me, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who gave a simply fantastic speech.

I have spoken frequently about mental health over the last six years, often supported by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). It will not come as a surprise to you, Mr Speaker, to learn that I have very little left to say on the subject. I would say, however, that I am simply delighted at what is happening today. We serve in a simply fantastic Parliament. We have fabulous colleagues here and they are doing great things in the area of mental health. Today’s Bill will provide so much hope and reassurance to many millions of people out there. They may not be watching the Chamber—I imagine only 3 million or 4 million are watching this morning’s debate—but over time we will change the view that people have of mental health problems.

On the other side of the Chamber,I see the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who, with me, in June admitted to his own mental health problems. I do not think he was prepared—I certainly was not—for the tsunami of interest that that created. The media were calling us almost hourly, asking for interviews and asking us to comment on what we had said. What was totally overwhelming was sitting in a studio waiting to be interviewed and having the people doing the make-up say, “My husband”—or, “My son,” or, “My father,”—“suffers from mental health problems. Thank you.” Then we would go through to the next level and meet the producer, who would quietly say, “I’ve suffered from mental health problems for a number of years. Thank you for giving me a voice.” Then there would be the woman or the gentleman doing the interview, who would say, “My child has mental health problems. Thank you for giving him”—or her—“a voice.”

For years we felt that the media were not on our page. I think, in fact, the media were on our page, but did not know what to do because, mistakenly, they felt that the public were frightened about people with mental health problems. The media played up to that fear in the headlines, everybody nervously laughing along to the ridicule that was directed towards people suffering with an illness. I think the press now realise that many of their readers and viewers were made deeply uncomfortable by that approach, and that for the last 20 years they got it wrong. What we are seeing is a sea change in the reporting of mental health problems. There is still some distance to go, but things are improving, and they are improving quickly.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) is doing today and what he is going to do over the next few months will probably be his most important achievement in political life. He will find it difficult to make more of a difference than he is going to make over the course of this year and the beginning of next. I am sure he will go on to hold great office—no doubt he will be a Secretary of State and perhaps go beyond—but what he is now doing is so important that it is unlikely that he will ever be able to top it.

I would also like to thank my colleagues in the Chamber today, because they are at the forefront of changing views and changing minds. They are to be celebrated, both in this House and in their constituencies. The two hon. Friends on either side of me today—my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Bracknell (Dr Lee)—spoke movingly and openly about their experiences, and when they did so, they had been in this House for little more than two years. I would not have had the bravery to do that after two years in this House, so I say this to them. I salute you for your honesty and integrity. No doubt your constituents recognise what you did that day in June.

I am going on a little and I did not want to go on too much, so I shall bring my few words to an end. I would like first, however, to pay tribute to Lord Stevenson of Coddenham. I have known him for about two and a half years now, and his energy, enthusiasm and dynamism are incredible. Indeed, I think I do my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central no disservice by saying that if it were not for Lord Stevenson’s enthusiasm for this Bill and his sheer determination, I doubt we would be here today. I would also like to thank—without naming them—the many civil servants who have promoted the Bill in their Departments. They, too, are to be lauded for their contribution.

That is really all I have to say. There are other discriminations out there that people with mental health problems continue to face—for example, a lack of advocacy when they are in crisis. That needs to be addressed. How we look after people in detention and the rights we give people in detention also need to be looked at. Then there are Criminal Records Bureau disclosures, where, under the question: “Is there any other relevant information?”, chief constables will too often write, “We are aware that this individual was detained under the Mental Health Act, but we don’t know whether they are a danger to children or adults. We don’t believe that they are.” All too often that is damning to the individual, so we need to look at that, too.

In the main, however, today is a day of celebration. It is a great day, and I am just so pleased to serve in such a wonderful national Parliament. We are rightly proud—and have the right to be proud—of what we are doing today. It is fabulous to be here. It is possibly the greatest day of my life. My wife and my three children may take exception to that, but it is certainly one of the greatest days of my life. Finally, I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central. You are doing a fabulous thing. Thank you so much for taking this Bill forward.

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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.

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Mr Charles Walker: I mentioned a few moments ago that Legal and General is doing good work to address stigma. No doubt, as a former Treasury Minister, my hon. Friend will welcome that. Will she ensure that her colleagues in government work with employers to promote the agenda of “No health without mental health” and to celebrate those who take a lead?

Miss Smith: My hon. Friend is, once more, absolutely correct. In this arena, as in so many others, it is vital for the Government to work with the private sector, the voluntary sector and anybody in any capacity to achieve our aims. We are talking about broad-scale cultural change. We need the private sector, whether in a macho or non-macho environment, to stand up and say that it cares about mental health and wants people to be well supported. I want that to happen in all walks of life.

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Mr Charles Walker: It is not for me to interfere in matters for the Government and Public Bill Committees, but may I make a plea that when the Bill goes into Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) is the Whip in charge? She has been a stalwart of the all-party mental health group, and we are sad to lose her to the Whips Office. I know that she will go on to do great things there and elsewhere, but we would like to see her again on occasion.

Miss Smith: My hon. Friend’s attitude to the Whips Office is well documented and understood in the House. I pay tribute to him for his independence of spirit and his tenacity in pursuing not only mental health issues but a range of others, and for turning his face against the establishment whenever possible. If I may be so cheeky, I endorse his request for that particular member of the Whips Office to be on the Committee. It may be well without my powers to do so—I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, or powers greater than any of us, will advise me about that shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) has campaigned tirelessly on the matter and deserves recognition for doing so.

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