‘Payback time’ beckons for peer

The Mental Health Act Commission’s Lord Kamlesh Patel tells Simeon Brody about his fight for race equality in services

“These things stay with you and drive you a little bit to make sure it doesn’t happen to others,” says Kamlesh, now Lord, Patel.

The Mental Health Act Commission chair and head of the University of Central Lancashire’s Centre for Ethnicity and Health is reflecting on the life of his older brother, who was put into a care home by social services while in his late 30s because of health problems.

After arriving in the UK from east Africa with a heart problem he had a series of strokes after receiving bad advice about medication.

But his condition deteriorated in the older people’s home, where he was medicated to keep him quiet and no one understood his culture or diet. Patel says social services had simply “written him off ” and it was only after Patel became a social worker himself in 1984 that the family were able to get him moved to a specialist service.

“In the last 15 years of his life he was well again,” reflects Patel. “But he had suffered too much and it eventually killed him.”

Patel believes “big inequalities in health care” contributed to his brother’s death and tackling such inequalities has been central to his career in social work, voluntary sector drugs work and academia.

Delivering Race Equality, a five year Department of Health programme to reduce inequalities in the mental health system, was  Patel’s brainchild and one he is proud of.

But he has concerns about how it is being implemented and says the financial crisis in the NHS has had a negative impact due to race equality and mental health not being considered high funding priorities.

Patel also says the scheme needs better central leadership and a strong message to health authority chief executives and chairs, possibly in the form of performance indicators.

A government inquiry into the experience of people from ethnic minorities in the mental health system also needs to take place, Patel says, and he is in discussions with ministers about the way forward.

“For the last 20 years we’ve said black people are disproportionately detained and their care is poor. We need to know why.”

Patel’s call for an inquiry is one of  the reasons he has decided to step down from his position as national director of the DH’s ethnic minority mental health programme, which runs the DRE programme, and he would hope to be a member, if not chair, if his wish is taken up.

He also plans to devote more time to his role as a cross-bench peer. He was ennobled in July and it is clear Lord Patel of Bradford is excited by the possibilities of his position.

“I’m here because I’ve been working with vulnerable communities. It’s on their backs that I’m here and it’s payback time.”

One issue Patel will need to consider is the government’s new Mental Health Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords this week. He says he does not understand why, given eight years of unified opposition to the government’s proposals, it has not sought to find some sort of consensus.

He senses “defensiveness” in the DH but says that with some amendments a “happy medium” could be reached. He adds that measures such as community treatment orders need safeguards in place and suggests the MHAC should be given powers to monitor them.

From social worker to peer, Patel admits he never imagined he would get so far. “I just wish my parents were alive to see it.”

● Greatest influence: Mum and dad. “A real tough cookie, my mum.”
● Favourite film: “The Exorcist. I watch a lot of horror and science fiction – they are utter escapism.”
● Hobby: “Cricket. I started playing when I was 12 and played semi-professional.”

Contact the author
 Simeon Brody

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