Under extreme mental stress when the MP for Croydon Central, ANDREW PELLING says he felt shunned and abandoned by his supposed parliamentary friends. That his mental ill-health was exploited at the General Election by a colleague should have the latest Mental Health Bill seen in a different light
Appropriate congratulations were given in the House of Commons debate last week to Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central’s MP, for using his high placing in a ballot for Private Members’ Bills to bring forward legislation to remove some discriminations against those suffering from or those who have suffered from mental ill-health.
Other MPs who had revealed their own past battles with mental ill-health received plaudits about their “coming-out”.
Barwell had some revelations of to make of his own. In the Commons, Barwell accused some of his childhood neighbours in Croydon as being overt racists.
Barwell said, “When I was a child, an Asian family tried to buy a house in our road — they would have been the first Asian family to do so.
“Disgustingly, some of the people on our road tried to persuade the family who were considering selling the house not to sell to an Asian family.”
Barwell also treated the House to another admission of prejudice of his own, professing to homophobia as a teenager when attending one of the borough’s private schools. “I also recall with great shame my teenage attitudes on sexuality — attitudes of which I am not proud.”
The debate took place ahead of the passage of a bill that had been initiated by House of Lords crossbencher Lord Stevenson. That bill failed to become law because it had been introduced late in a Parliamentary cycle – basically, it had run out of time.
After coming fourth in a ballot of MPs to see who gets to introduce their pet piece of legislation, Barwell chose to bring Lord Stevenson’s bill to the Commons. He has the support of both government and opposition for the Mental Health (Discrimination) (No 2) Bill which will abolish powers to expel MPs sectioned for more than six months and to bar people from jury service if they have suffered from mental ill-health.
Tempting fate, Barwell was, I presume, trying to be self-deprecatory in saying that once he came up so high in the ballot he was so overwhelmed with contacts and calls from people and interest groups with bills to suggest to take to the House that, “It is good that a reshuffle was not taking place at the time.”
That suggests that Barwell would have hoped to have been better placed than his recent shift to be a Personal Private Secretary to Michael Gove, the education minister, which must be an interesting role in the company of an entertaining chap. Education professionals feel less than amused.
If worried by his current status, Barwell can content himself that he is at least ahead of the 24 MPs who remain outside government and who have not rebelled the party line in the voting lobbies – the unlucky 24 MPs passed over for promotion are detailed on Conservative Home. Barwell ought to have got a better job – is it coz he’s from Croydon that Call Me Dave ignores him?
Dr Sarah Woolaston, an independent-minded MP whose position was strengthened after being selected as a Conservative candidate by an “open primary”, open to all members of the public in Totnes, had a good perspective on the bill. She said that the bill “sends a message about recovery”.
As regards Parliament and mental health, the bill is really more emblematic than practical. It says more about improved attitudes to mental health than providing for real change as regards Parliament for, in reality, only one MP has ever been expelled from the House of Commons because of mental health. That was back in 1916 when, stressed in part by caring for returning war wounded, an MP was chucked out after time incarcerated in a home. Then, it was the Lunacy (Vacant Seats) Act 1886 legislation that was used.
The bill also sent a message against stigmatising those who have been depressed, or worse. Kevan Jones MP, who along with Charles Walker MP admitted to past difficulties with mental health, welcomed the bill and the abolition of a discriminatory law that “stigmatises people suffering from mental ill-health”.
BUT THIS LEGISLATION could have gone further to have a real impact. Before the 2010 General Election, the three major political parties’ leaders signed an agreement not to stigmatise those candidates who had had past encounters with mental ill-health.
Hugh Muir, The Guardian‘s political sketch-writer, summarised this compact in his newspaper this week: “There existed a pact, devised by the all-party parliamentary group on mental health and supported by organisations such as Mind and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and backed by the party leaders. It obliged signatories ‘not to stigmatise, slur or discriminate against anyone with a mental health problem’. Also ‘not to speculate about the mental health of any member’.”
Odd, then, that in 2010, Barwell’s colleagues and campaigners in the Croydon Conservative party thought little of respecting that compact when on the doorstep, and issued what they described as a “briefing” for party members to use when I – as the former Conservative MP for Croydon Central – was seeking re-election as an independent candidate.
In reality, the document was a six-page “dirty dossier” that made reference to my previous depressive illness, ignoring entirely the agreement that their party leader had signed.
This latest bill would not have protected me from discrimination based on past mental ill-health.
At Westminster, the Conservative party Chief Whip has the power to remove the whip – effectively, membership of the parliamentary “team” – and so, automatically, the power to sack anyone as a future candidate.
You can appeal to the party board but when I was faced with such a situation, the Chief Whip assured me that the Conservative party board would find me guilty of bringing the party into disrepute. So much for the quality of justice within the Conservative party’s processes.
I chose not to bother with such a political show trial. The Conservative party, by 2008 already very close to the Murdoch-owned press, seemed more concerned about an adverse editorial about me in the News of the World and an article in the Mail on Sunday (whom I subsequently sued for libel, and won) than showing a duty of care for a colleague suffering from mental ill-health.
Later, I was occasionally offered the prospect of receiving the Conservative whip back at some indeterminate time in the future on condition that I would not be a Conservative candidate in the future. Thank goodness my recovery from mental ill-health, prompted in part by such ill-will from my erstwhile colleagues, left me determined not to accept such a proposal.
Anyway, the bill could be bolstered by regularising the 2010 compact and by recognising that parties are in reality these days employers, employers who should have a duty of care to those of its MPs who suffer from mental ill-health. Macho politics in my case led to my being cast adrift.
PERHAPS GAVIN BARWELL should also take note of comments from David Nuttall MP in the debate last Friday that “it is simply inappropriate, in the 21st century, for any part of our body of law to employ the terms ‘idiot’ and ‘lunatic’, when it comes to his own use of language.”
Barwell has been obliged to apologise for describing one Croydon resident as a “loon” and for calling a Croydon Central constituent “unhinged”. Nice.
Despite his own new-found concern for mental ill-health discrimination, Barwell has so far failed to show any remorse for his General Election 2010 behaviour. As Hugh Muir reported in the Guardian, I see Barwell’s bill as a penance for his previous behaviour.
But Muir found that Barwell’s interest in mental ill-health matters was not strong enough to show any true remorse for his win-at-all-costs behaviour at the General Election.
As Muir put it, “Now he wears the halo. Nice fit, isn’t it?”
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- Schools job raises questions about Barwell’s Foundation links (insidecroydon.com)
- MP mental health ban to be axed (bbc.co.uk)
- The Mental Health Bill is an improvement (leftfootforward.org)