review the whole act

You would have thought once bitten, twice shy, but the Department of Health seems to have fallen foul of the race equality lobby yet again as it strives to reform the mental health legislation. Having been forced into an ignominious climbdown over the Mental Health Bill – scrapped because too many MPs on the government’s own side opposed it – the government apparently proposes to skimp on the race equality impact assessment of its latest plan.

The DH now intends to amend the Mental Health Act 1983 rather than introduce wholly new legislation, but it looks set to limit the impact assessment to the amendments rather than review the updated Act in full.

This is in spite of the fact that a report produced by the Healthcare Commission and others last year found black people were three times more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals and 44 per cent more likely to be sectioned under the 1983 Act than the rest of the population. Worse still, black men are about 50 per cent more likely than average to be held in seclusion and 29 per cent more likely to be subject to control and restraint.

Last year the DH was accused of institutional racism over the way it handled the race equality impact assessment of the Mental Health Bill amid claims that it had not given service users from ethnic minorities enough time to take part in the consultation. If it now plans a repeat performance, it should think again.

It is quite plain that the existing Act has performed poorly for black people, for whom it has specific civil liberties implications every bit as serious in their own way as the broader civil liberties issues that brought down the bill. There is a fine line between legitimate use of the Act’s sectioning provisions and locking up black people merely because they are seen as a threat to the public.

The current obsession with public protection, reflected in the ill-fated bill, only makes a bad situation worse. Equality before the law is a fundamental principle and ought to be no less so in the mental health arena. The DH should take a thorough look at the 1983 Act, amendments and all.

  • See Government fails to meet concerns of anti-racist activists over 1983 act

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