It may never have been invoked, but a provision to unseat an MP who has been detained on the grounds of “mental disorder” still exists. Despite the fact that no similar provision exists to remove an MP with a debilitating physical illness from Parliament, section 141 of 1983’s Mental Health Act has the power to strip an MP of their seat should they fail to recover from a detainable mental illness within six months.
Only once, in 1916, has an MP actually been forced to vacate their seat on the grounds of mental illness, which at the time was referred to as “lunacy” (so outdated, perhaps, is the notion). But it is the symbolic significance of this archaic legislation that has caused concern – enough concern, in fact, that section 141 looks set to be repealed during the next parliamentary session.
In September 2007 Gordon Brown asked the Speaker to convene a Speaker’s Conference which would debate and make recommendations on a number of electoral matters, including the perceived discrimination against mentally ill MPs. Its conclusion, reached in 2010, was that section 141 “embodies attitudes which stigmatise and sap the confidence of people with mental illness”. It recommended that section 141 should be repealed “as soon as practicable”.
This was largely in response to the view expressed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who pointed out to the Conference that there are no provisions to remove an MP from office if they suffer from a physical illness, “even if the illness (e.g. a serious stroke or cancer) is very debilitating and substantially affects the person’s ability to perform their parliamentary functions”. “By removing the seat of an MP who is detained under the Mental Health Act”, they added, “the law also gives the false impression that an MP cannot recover from a mental disorder”. Broadly, their criticism focused on how out of date and blithely discriminatory this approach to mental health is.
Fortunately, such an antiquated approach to mental illness should soon be consigned to the history books. Lord Stevenson of Coddenham introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill, in the Lords last April. Though its course since then has been steady and section 141 still exists, this bid to repeal it has government support. Mark Harper, the constitutional affairs minister, last November stressed the government’s commitment to repealing section 141, adding that “should Lord Stevenson wish to reintroduce his Bill in the next session, the Government would be pleased to support it”.
The eventual repeal of section 141 looks inevitable – and its achievement will be an undeniable success in the effort to destigmatise mental illness.
Read more contributions to TP's mental health week here