New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: Thank you, Ms Buck, for calling me so early in this debate. I am sure that I speak for everybody who listened to the remarkable speech of the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) when I say that it was a privilege to do so. We should all be immensely grateful to him for illustrating the important policy points that he had to make by means of his agonising experiences in his immediate family in his very early years. We all thank him for it.

Given how many hon. Members wish to contribute, I will speak very briefly. I note that the hon. Gentleman’s speech was briefly interrupted by some shouting outside the Chamber to do with Brexit; it seems to be a common theme that mental health debates tend to happen at times when they are overshadowed by other issues. For example, when I became a Member of this House in 1997, I came second in the private Member’s Bill ballot. I chose to introduce the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, which was designed to achieve improvements for people who suffered catastrophic breakdowns such that they needed to be admitted to acute mental health units.

At that time, the person who came first in the ballot chose to address a subject of massive national importance, namely the banning of hunting with hounds, and I could not help but notice the contrast between the packed main Chamber on the Friday that was considering the welfare of foxes and the rather more thinly occupied main Chamber a week later, as was customary, when we were trying to consider the welfare of human beings. It was ever thus.

The points at issue then are, to some extent, still points at issue now. They have already been touched upon, at least in part, in the excellent opening speech that we have all heard. My particular concern was the need for there to be separate therapeutic environments for people who had to be admitted to acute units who suffered from very different types of mental illness. In other words, the idea that somebody suffering from acute depression should be cheek-by-jowl with somebody suffering regular psychotic outbursts was obviously a recipe to make a very serious situation even worse.

While I was doing the research for that debate, it was drawn to my attention by staff at acute units that their particular nightmare was the thought of what would happen if there was inadequate staffing coupled with mixed-sex wards. I was really rather shocked and shaken today to hear the statistics cited by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark about the level of danger of sexual assault among in-patients, because for quite a number of years I and various other colleagues waged a campaign to abolish mixed-sex wards in mental health in-patient facilities. At first there was talk of separate bays, if I recall correctly, which by no means would have answered the necessities of the problem. And successive Governments kept saying that they would do it, and even that they had done it, so it is particularly disturbing to hear about the level of concern that still exists about this issue.

The question of inadequate numbers of beds has already been touched upon by the hon. Gentleman. It has to be said that, for once, this is not the responsibility or fault of Government, because after the closure of so many of the large asylums, the pendulum – in my opinion, and I am not an expert; I have to say that I am not a medical doctor – swung too far the opposite way.​

I remember, in the New Forest area, having to fight a bitter campaign – which ultimately failed – to prevent a 35% reduction in in-patient beds in acute units. If I remember correctly, two of five units were closed. We were prepared to compromise and say, “Close one of the two units. Close 16 of the beds, rather than 32, and see how you get on,” but the authorities would not listen and they forced the closures through. It was the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which later became notorious in the mental health sphere for other reasons, that forced through the closure of all these beds, and the system has been rammed and overflowing, and under excessive pressure, ever since.

There was another knock-on effect of the swinging of the pendulum too far back from the correct policy of closing the larger asylums, and that was that, by having fewer permanent facilities, we lost the ability to have what was technically – or maybe not very technically – known as the “revolving door”. This was the idea that, yes, if we could get more people back in society, so that they could make their own way and live their lives freely and without having to be in-patients, the very existence of a network of permanent establishments – albeit for other purposes – meant that there were always plenty of opportunities, so that if somebody felt that a trough was coming they could seek help easily for, as it were, almost a top-up of treatment, just for a few days. That would then set them back on track and it meant that they would not suffer –

Neil Coyle indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark indicating his agreement. It meant that they would not then suffer a much worse breakdown, which would have meant that they would have to be incarcerated, for want of a better word, for a much longer period.

Debbie Abrahams: To prevent people, including people living with dementia, from having to be admitted to hospital, there needs to be community support and after-care support once people are discharged, to ensure that they can be kept as healthy and independent as possible in the community for as long as possible.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, as long as we recognise that what is needed is a range of facilities. Even the most ardent advocate of doing away with in-patient beds would, if pressed, admit that there will always be some people who at some point absolutely need to have some in-patient treatment.

If there are some people who need to go in for a considerable period of time, and hopefully there are a lot more people who do not need to be admitted to acute units at all, it follows almost logically that there will be some people who are on the borderline between the two, who can get by in society with a degree of self-awareness – either their own or that of their immediate family – and that when the warning signs appear, provided there is that network of specialist care with beds for very short-term stays, they can receive what I call a “top-up”, or, if we were talking about servicing a vehicle, something that will prevent a much greater collapse from happening later, with all the consequent horrors.​

The question of what happens when people are admitted to acute units arose on a second occasion. I mentioned the first occasion, when I tried to introduce my private Member’s Bill in December 1997 and it was overshadowed by foxhunting. On a second occasion – on 9 December 2010, to be precise – I had secured an Adjournment debate on what happens about the information that is given to someone’s nearest and dearest when an adult is sectioned and goes into an acute unit. That occasion was on the day of the key debate about the trebling of student tuition fees, so once again we found mental health being somewhat upstaged by other matters that were of national importance. However, that is no reason not to persist or not to continue to try and emphasise to Ministers how these issues will never go away until they are finally tackled.

On that occasion in December 2010, I raised the case of the daughter of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Edgell. Sadly, their daughter – who was called Larissa but known as Lara – had taken her own life in 2006. For two years prior to that, the medical authorities had refused to share information about her with her parents; because she was an adult in her thirties, they refused to share vital information about her suicidal thoughts with her parents, on the grounds of patient confidentiality.

It subsequently turned out that there were very good guidelines that said that such information should be shared. So, I wrote to the then Minister with responsibility for care services, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), saying that there was clearly a breakdown in the system if adequate rules existed but were not being put into practice locally. The rather unsatisfactory answer that I received at the time was that the responsibility lay with the local medical authorities to ensure that the central guidelines were implemented.

As I say, that was at the end of 2010, so it was a long time ago. I wonder whether the Minister will be able to reassure me that there is now more central direction. In the case of Lara and her parents there was inadequate sharing of vital information, under the mistaken belief that patient confidentiality trumped the fact that an adult patient was incapable of making her own decisions. I would like to know whether that situation has been rectified, or whether we are still dependent on local medical institutions and authorities to apply a central guideline that ought to be better known.

This week, I received a letter from Lara’s mother, who asked me to attend this debate. I can do no better than to read from what she says, not so much about what happened to her daughter but about the continued interest that she has in the workings of the mental health services. She says that she would like to make her own recommendations; given what happened so tragically in her immediate family, we owe it to her to give serious consideration to those recommendations, which are as follows:

“1. The 1983 Act should be revised to prioritise the dignity of individuals who come to be in the Service’s orbit.
2. Such individuals should have their values and world views respected and have a significant say in the manner of their treatment.
3. They should have the option to refuse certain treatments.
4. Mental hospitals must be places where patients feel safe: there have been numerous allegations of staff members being abusive, provocative and/or intimidating.​
5. Use of force should be absolutely minimised. This includes physical restraint, seclusion, or forced medication.
6. A reduction in ‘sectioning’.
7. A reduction in stigma” –

and finally:

“8. All aspects of the Mental Health Service should be more open, and subject to independent scrutiny from time to time.”

I will conclude by making one left-field observation relating to the armed forces. The Select Committee on Defence, which I have the honour of chairing, has been recommending for some time that we establish a centre of excellence for the mental injuries suffered by those who put their life on the line to defend this country, preferably alongside the national centre for physical rehabilitation at Stanford Hall. We have now raised this issue twice with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who has given us a reasonably encouraging response. However, once again, we feel that he is coming up against resistance because of the philosophy that people must be treated locally when at all possible, not admitted as in-patients in centralised locations. That is causing a pushback against our idea.

Our idea is based on the fact that those who suffer injury in combat situations have experienced a peculiar and unique form of trauma, different from those that ordinary mental health professionals can be expected to understand. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) will want to expand on that topic, if he is lucky enough to catch the Chair’s eye. We believe that there is a case for a national centre of excellence, and that the welfare of members of our armed services who suffer mental injury should be no less important to us than the welfare of those who suffer other, physical forms of injury in the cause of defending our freedom.