As I write this it looks as though the Mental Health (Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill will become law over the next two or three weeks.
In the UK we have statutes dealing with discrimination on age, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and gender. But astonishingly the protections most of us enjoy do not exist for people with mental health issues and actively precludes these people from being school governors, company directors, MPs and above all potential jurors. This Bill is the first stage in removing the last major form of discrimination against those suffering from mental ill health.
I won’t elaborate on the discriminations but anyone who wishes to find them out should look up the Bill and its details! Suffice to say that touching every finger and toe, they are going to be removed. There is a long way to go in removing all discrimination on mental health grounds but this is a positive first step.
How was it done?
First, you need a member of the House of Lords … me! I am not party political … an independent Crossbencher. I was approached by The Royal College of Psychiatrists and by the wonderful Charles Walker MP who is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health some two years ago to bring in this Bill. Having got over the “why me” conversation, I decided not to introduce it immediately but to talk to the civil servants in the four Government departments affected. This turned out to be a good thing to have done. Well away from the gaze of politics, three of the four were very sympathetic and I think it is fair to say were won round there and then. The fourth we had to work on over a longer period of time but we got there as well. We got lucky in that a wonderful young Minister in the Cabinet Office, Mark Harper, turned out already to be on our side and was very supportive.
The moral is it’s worth investing as much time as is necessary to get the civil servants onside. With them onside you stand a very good chance of getting the Government to support the Bill. We then introduced the Bill to the House of Lords in the last parliamentary session even though we knew it could not become law. We did this simply because we wanted to get unambiguous Government support on the record. And we did.
We then wrote to all MPs taking part in the Private Members’ Bill ballot pointing out we had a Bill that commanded Government support which would affect the vast majority of their constituents and was not a “Government hand me down” Bill. Did they want to have their place in history? Gavin Barwell, who drew fourth in the ballot did. He steered the Bill through the House of Commons brilliantly. I am taking it through the Lords and got over the major hurdle of the Second Reading a fortnight ago.
It is not easy to achieve legislative change. Not everyone has access to a peer and a peer at that who would be prepared to do it. And not every independent peer has access to the key civil servants. And even with these ad vantages, most people thought we wouldn’t achieve it!
Change is possible, even if you’re not a member of the government (but being in the House of Lords helps).