Last Chance for Change: Welsh Pair Head for Parliament

As the draft Mental Health Bill is prepared to be put before Parliament, a former mental health patient and a mental health carer from Wales are heading for London to deliver crucial evidence.

Jo Roberts, previously a mental health patient with experience of sectioning under the Mental Health Act, now employed as an advocate at Hafal, and Vicky Yeates, a carer and senior law lecturer, will be answering on behalf of Hafal – Wales’ principal organisation working for people with serious mental illness. The Committee evidence sessions will provide a chance to argue for alterations to the draft before it becomes law, bringing the biggest change in mental health legislation for over twenty years.

“As people with direct experience of mental health services, and mental health law, it is important that our voices are heard,” said Jo Roberts. “If the Bill goes through as it is, it will be a wasted chance to give people with mental illness the rights that they deserve. We have to fight to the last minute.”

Since its publication in September, the draft Bill has been heavily criticized by both patients and many in the mental health profession. In particular, many critics of the draft Bill are concerned with its concentration on the compulsory treatment of people with serious mental health illness, and its lack of emphasis on rights to early treatment.

Vicky Yeates commented: “The National Service Frameworks for England and Wales include, as standard one, the laudable aim of combating the stigma associated with mental disorder. This Bill, with its repeated focus on risk, promotes an association between mental disorder and criminality. This is stigma inducing, not reducing.

“Also, whilst no one would argue with the right of users to appoint their own advocates, this does not justify removing altogether the nearest relative concept and attendant rights. The main thrust of such rights is that of challenging compulsion before it is imposed. Any reduction in this right would involve a major shift of power to the state.

“Users and carers want effective early treatment for what is an illness and to be treated with the same respect and dignity as people with a physical illness. Instead, the Bill emphasises the need to control and contain those with mental health problems. This will divert desperately needed resources away from patient care. Wales is already struggling: this Bill will seriously retard progress which has been hard won.”

The Committee inquiry will lead to a report, published together with the evidence on which it is based, setting out recommendations to the Government on how to improve the draft Mental Health Bill before it is formally introduced into Parliament. The Committee has to report by the end of March 2005.

Bill Walden-Jones, Chief-Executive of Hafal, said: “As a charity run by people with direct experience of mental health illness, we are keenly aware of the flaws in the new draft of the Bill. At the evidence session today, we have an important opportunity to represent the best interest of users and their families in Wales and to have a positive influence on the final Bill.”