MPs with mental illness will no longer be automatically disqualified

The government announced today the repeal of a law which automatically expels MPs from Parliament if they have a serious mental health condition.

This morning on Daybreak TV, Nick Clegg spoke about the abolition of Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983:

Today we are announcing that we are repealing an old-fashioned outdated law which means that MPs at the moment are disqualified from being MPs if they have a mental health problem which goes on for more than six months.

We are scrapping that – it is a relatively symbolic thing because it has never been used – but it nonetheless shows that we are determined to root out that stigma.

Although Section 141 itself has never been used, the Liberal MP Dr Charles Leach was removed from his seat in 1916 under the indelicately-named Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act, following a nervous breakdown after the First World War.

The final report of the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation in 2010 stated that

The law on disqualification from Membership is not consistent or logical in its treatment of various types of illness or disorder. If a Member suffers from serious physical illness -say a stroke- that can leave constituents effectively un-represented in much the same way as if a Member has a serious mental disorder. Yet there is no parallel provision to s141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 for cases of physical illness.

We have received substantial evidence from a number of sources, both expert and lay, to suggest that s141 wrongly implies that mental illness is in some way fundamentally different in its effects from physical illness. Yet the House, through its medical services, can provide care and assistance for those with mental illness, just as it can for those with physical illness.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists, which lobbied for a repeal of the law for several years, has said the decision demonstrates “that someone with a mental health problem can recover and lead an active role in political life”.

Legislation will be brought forward later this year.

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7 Comments

  • In principle I agree that there should be no differentiation between a mental and a physical illness with regard to how people and MPs are treated.

    But I wonder how long a constituency should be left unrepresented – just think back to the LibDem representations at how badly the constituents of OE&S were being treated and that is not a party political point btw.

    I think that mental illnesses can be much more incapacitating in many ways than a physical illness and in a sense I’m not sure that a stroke is a very good example of a physical illnes vis-a-vis a mental one.

    It’s a difficult area – not in setting the principle – but with regard to the rights of the constituents and when do they over-ride the MPs health problems.

    I think that many mental health issues have a potential to be of longer duration than physical ones. Although having said that I wonder if an MP is suffering from say terminal cancer do they have to soldier on to ensure that their dependants don’t lose out financially by an early retiral on health grounds.

    This may be an issue with an MP with a mental health issue as well.

    So I hope rather than just say they are the same and forget about it that we look at the financial aspects to see that if an ill MP wants to resign because they feel they are not adequately serving their constituents that they can do so without financial penalty.

    But by the same token we have to work out how to protect constituents with what could potentially be a five year absence without even considering what would happen if an ill MP was reselected.

    I don’t think it is quite as simple as it looks but of course nothing ever is in politics, especially when in government.

  • I suppose that if an MP has a serious mental illness but is still able to fulfill their duties as MP to the full, there is no reason they should be disqualified. Good day for social attitudes to psychiatry.

  • @Rich

    I take it as a given that if an MP with a mental illness is discharging their duties to the full then none of my comments would apply.

    Sadly there is an issue of public attitides on whether or not a pre-existing mental illness should be revealed by a prospective MP and it reminds me in a way of Gay MPs in the past. Worryingly, despite the public attitudes becoming generally more liberal on the gay issue there are still many MPS who I’m sure are loth to reveal their sexuality.

    I would like to think that perhaps public acceptance of mental illness wouldn’t take as long – the big problem is the almost primeval fear of some people that it’s catching. Obviously Education has a major role to play here but it will be a long slow process.

    @George Kendall – agree with what you say but would add that just because a law isn’t used doesn’t mean it isn’t viewed as a real threat by people. So it is an important step-forward to remove it.

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