Among planned reforms, the draft bill would have updated rules on the detention of people with learning difficulties and autism. Experts, including Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, have voiced deep concern over the side-lining of the ‘overdue’ reforms and accuse the Government of ‘failing to keep its promises’.
After being announce six years ago, a new Mental Health bill was drafted in 2022. The draft bill proposed reforms to the 40-year-old Mental Health Act (MHA), aiming to modernise its legislation. Chief executive of the charity Mind, Dr Sarah Hughes said, ‘More than 50,000 people were held under the Mental Health Act last year, so it is incomprehensible that legislation which would help people at their most unwell has been de-prioritised.’
The new bill would have had many positive impacts for patients, including a greater ability to challenge decisions made about an individual’s care and, notably, removing having a disability or autism as grounds for detention. 92% of autistic people who are currently detained in hospital are there due to the use of the 1983 MHA, that allows people to be detained solely on the fact they have autism. Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, said, ‘The Government has ignored the thousands of us calling for reform, so our mental health laws are fit for the 21st century.’
Assuring Transformation NHS Digital data found that, as of September this year, there are 2,045 autistic people and people with learning disabilities in mental health hospitals in England. 205 of those are under 18. The National Autistic Society noted that the average length of stay is around five and a half years and explained that they have heard of alarming cases of overmedication and seclusion. Nicholls noted that the King’s Speech was a ‘vital’ opportunity to commit to reform of the ‘outdated’ MHA and to ‘address the ongoing crisis of autistic people being stuck in mental health hospitals.’ He added, ‘We urgently need significant, long-term funding for community mental health and social care services, so that autistic people can get the support they need in the first place and don’t need to reach crisis point and end up locked away in hospitals.’
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation said ‘there is little in this King’s Speech for the NHS’. Any additional changes are unlikely to be passed before the next general election. Taylor said, ‘While there may well be record levels of investment in mental health services, with over 1.4m on waiting lists, these services are a long way from where they need to be. Reform is long overdue, and this is another missed opportunity.’