Peers force government to consider adding protective principles to bill

The government has agreed to consider putting overarching principles strengthening the rights of patients on the face of its  controversial Mental Health Bill after the idea received strong backing from peers this week.

An amendment tabled by Conservative shadow health minister Earl Howe proposed practitioners should have regard to the importance of patient participation and use the least restrictive approach necessary when applying the law.

The bill proposes increasing compulsory treatment powers and, speaking at committee stage, Howe said it had to be made “crystal clear” that the rules of compulsion were underpinned by values.

Junior health minister Lord Hunt of King’s Heath said while the government would make no promises it would explore the issue “to see if any movement can be made”. 

But Hunt warned that grafting new principles onto the Mental Health Act 1983, which the bill amends, and which already has principles, would not promote clarity.

He said including principles in the bill’s code of practice would give them a stronger link to implementation and allow more  flexibility for them to be updated in the future.

His predecessor Lord Warner, who retired last month, had earlier suggested the government compromise and agree “a more limited set of key principles” which might temper much of the opposition to the bill. Howe’s amendment was withdrawn, as were amendments to exclude from the scope of the bill people with autism, unless they were being abnormally aggressive, or people with learning difficulties, unless they were also suffering from a mental illness.

The bill, introduced in November, faces widespread opposition from inside and outside of parliament due to proposals to increase compulsory treatment in the community and imposed treatment without therapeutic benefit.

Martin Ball, head of public affairs at mental health charity Together, said he was sceptical of the government’s decision to look again at placing principles on the bill, saying it had already had nine years, since the first draft bill was introduced, to consider the issue.

Amendments to be debated
● Introduction of right to treatment.
● Electroconvulsive therapy safeguards.
● Use of age-appropriate settings for under-18s.

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 Simeon Brody 

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