Thursday, February 03, 2011

The disqualification of MPs on mental health grounds

Included in Nick Clegg's announcement of the government's new mental health strategy yesterday was the news that Section 141 of the Mental Health Act is the be abolished. This is the law that states that an MP must be removed from the House once he or she has been detained under mental health legislation for more than six months.

This morning Archbishop Cranmer - a blogger who believes that God is a Conservative and votes for Iain Duncan Smith in internal party elections - tweeted:
Is Clegg abolishing Lunacy Act because it was enacted after one Liberal went insane in 1886 and was used to oust another Liberal in 1916?
Up to a point, Your Grace.

In fact only one MP has ever been disqualified on mental health grounds. He was Charles Leach, Liberal MP for Colne Valley between January 1910 (when he defeated the mysterious Victor Grayson) and 1916.

Wikipedia describes his health problems as follows:
Appointed as a Chaplain to the Armed Forces, 4th class, during the First World War, his duty was to visit the wounded in the London Military Hospitals. In 1915 the strain of this and his parliamentary duties became too much and he dropped out of public life. It was reported that he had suffered a nervous breakdown, and had to move to a nursing home in London. In reality it was much starker and he had been committed to Northumberland House, Green Lanes, a private lunatic asylum. He was declared to be suffering from an unsound mind, brain deterioration and loss of memory. This would appear to have some physical cause and may well have been vascular dementia cause by small strokes or similar. Some eight months later he was found still to be of unsound mind and his seat was declared vacant.
The resultant by-election was won for the Liberals by Frederick Mallalieu, whose daughter Ann is a Labour peer and was once a near fixture on Any Questions?

Leach was disqualified under was the Luncacy (Vacating of Seats) Act of 1886, which must be where Cranmer got that date from.

However, a footnote on the webpage Causes of Byelections since the ‘Reform Act’ says:
There was at least one case before the passage of this Act of a Member found to be of unsound mind, who could not be deprived of his seat - John Bell, MP for Thirsk in July 1849.
And there is a Wikipedia page for John Bell too:
In July 1849 a Commission of Lunacy was held to determine the state of mind of John Bell, the sitting MP for Thirsk. A succession of witnesses was called, each of whom testified concerning Bell's mental state, repeating his belief that he was a bird. Bell also told his relatives and acquaintances that, while he was a bird, he could fly much better than a bird, because he kept his shoulders oiled. After the medical witnesses unanimously agreed that Bell was totally incompetent of caring for himself, the jury returned its verdict that Bell was of unsound mind.

Despite this, it was found impossible to remove him from his seat and he continued as the Member for Thirsk until his death in 1851.
Bell, the Archbishop will be happy to learn, was a Liberal too.

It first became possible to disqualify MPs on mental health grounds under the 1886 Act. This was succeeded by provisons in the the Mental Health Act 1959 and then Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983.

Let us leave the last word to Alastair Campbell:
If it is true that the government, at Clegg’s insistence, is intending to repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act as part of the mental health strategy announced today, that is a good and welcome thing.
I tried to get the last government to do it, not least when with Rethink, Mind and other charities I gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference, but failed. It will not change many lives, but it is an important symbol. Section 141 means that MPs can lose their seat if they become mentally ill. No such measure exists for long-term physical health. It is therefore a piece of straightforward discrimination which fuels the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness.
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1 comment:

Mark Wellington said...

Re: Charles Leach - I heard a rumour that Lord Bonkers once tried to avoid his duties in the Lords by sticking two pencils up his nose and repeatedly saying 'wibble, wibble', but after an occupational health assessment he was judged fit for duty and forced to resume his former duties.