This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
Standing up to fight for an issue in the House of Commons can be a daunting prospect for any MP, but his bravery in sharing details of a personal struggle with mental illness has won Charles Walker the honour of MP of the Month.
The issue of mental health has gained ground in the public forum in the past few years, supported by the endorsement of high-profile celebrities, the work of charities, and, according to Walker, the increased understanding of people in the media.
He was nominated by colleagues, who praised Walker’s recent moving, intensely personal speech in the Commons chamber.
When discussing a Private Member’s Bill on changes to laws related to mental health, brought forward by Gavin Barwell, Walker spoke about having lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for over 30 years.
He describes the illness as a “pain in the neck”, but says it has given him the opportunity and motivation to campaign on an issue that affects around one in four people during their lifetime.
The Time to Change mental-health campaign described the debate as an event that would go “down in the history books”.
Walker admits he is flattered, but dismisses the part he has played. “It wasn’t a huge ordeal. In fact, it was rather therapeutic. It was a great relief to just get it off my chest.”
The Conservative MP insists that it wasn’t something about which he had been particularly worried about speaking, but had felt it would help personalise the issue.
He told MPs how counting became very important, and that he always has to complete tasks in fours. He recounted details about the voices inside his head, a darker side of the illness that had significant power to change his actions.
He had, he explained, destroyed a picture of his child for fear that he may die otherwise. He now admits that his problems are fairly “benign” at the moment, and manageable on a day-to-day basis.
He was supported in the Commons by Labour MP Kevan Jones, who described his own difficult experiences with depression, and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston’s openness about her anxiety attacks and post-natal depression.
The proposed bill would champion the scraping of laws that discriminate against people who’ve formerly had mental health problems. These laws include banning them from jury service, or standing as an MP if they have been sectioned for more than six months.
“No MPs have ever been impacted by this,” the backbencher explains. He claims that, despite only a few thousand people being prevented from serving on juries each year, it “does send out a message that we tolerate discrimination in mental health”.
There are common misconceptions about amending these laws, but Walker assures that it is beneficial in the majority of cases.
“What we’re saying is that people who perhaps 10 or 20 years ago had a mental health problem, and perhaps see someone once a month just to make sure it’s managed, can be prevented from serving on a jury. It’s ridiculous.”
The MP for Broxbourne has spoken up on mental health issues throughout his political career, from praising the work of services in his local constituency to raising the debate in Parliament, calling for new approaches to care with an emphasis on compassion.
The response to his speech has been overwhelmingly positive. One MP, in their nomination, said: “Mental health has rarely had such a wonderful champion.”
Walker noted that he has received so many letters from people sharing their stories that he hasn’t yet had a chance to respond to them all. “A lot of people are very relieved that, at last, MPs are talking about this subject, and relating to themselves,” he explains.
“It was useful for people to understand that MPs have a concept of what they’re experiencing – and it’s a personal concept in some cases.”
Despite the positive publicity the debate has received, Walker believes that more needs to be done about the stigma attached to mental health, and that debate is the best way to move the issue forwards.
“It’s about society parking its prejudices, moving towards people and embracing them. If that sounds slightly sentimental, I don’t care – it’s what needs to be done.”
From the editor
There is often a strong disinclination in politics to admit weakness. For an MP to stand up in the Commons chamber and admit that they suffer from a mental health condition takes guts.
To make it a compelling, moving and positive speech marks this debate out as an exceptional event. Every MP who discussed their own experience deserves considerable praise.
Charles Walker received a number of nominations for his speech championing an end to discrimination over mental health.
His description of his ruined first year in Parliament, as he feared his OCD would become public knowledge, is an indication of the quiet suffering far too many people experience. His brave speech has helped ensure that both legal and cultural barriers are lowered that bit further.
Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood
Reckless has put great effort into raising concerns over the Thames Estuary Airport proposal, which has roused considerable debate among MPs on the future of aviation.
Nicknamed ‘Boris Island’, the Mayor of London’s recommendations have been criticised for their £50–£80bn cost and detrimental environmental impact. Reckless’ colleagues note he has done a great job in trying to quell fears from constituents regarding the ideas, after many voiced concerns.
The Conservative MP highlighted the importance of the aviation industry’s future to the British economy, and it was through his increased efforts that Parliament discussed the issue.
Reckless says he will continue to push for the government to reconsider plans for a third runway at Heathrow, and focus on proposals that make “economic and environmental sense”.
Labour MP for Sheffield Central
Blomfield has been pushing strongly for student visas to be removed from official immigration figures, and it has received media attention.
He co-authored the issue with Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, and both have warned that Britain risks appearing closed off as a place of study and work. Blomfield has been increasing pressure on the government to U-turn on the policy.
He has also taken part in a Westminster Hall debate, questioned immigration minister Damian Green, and held a breakfast meeting of MPs and peers in Portcullis House to raise awareness of the issue.
It’s estimated that international students who chose to study in Britain contribute an estimated £40bn to the UK economy.
Conservative MP for Hendon
Offord was nominated by a fellow MP who noticed his recent “significant contribution” to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill.
Offord is currently seeking an amendment to the Bill that aims to help blind and disabled people gain better access the electoral system.
The amendment aims to identify the needs of blind and disabled voters, and to introduce a better system to change drastically their voting experience. It would allow electoral registration officers to establish the demand for voting documents in alternative forms, alongside additional accessibility.
The MP is due to meet with the minister responsible, David Heath, to discuss the issue. There are approximately 15,000 disabled potential voters per parliamentary constituency.