What with the extraordinary events unfolding in Iran, and the announcement of the inquiry into the war in Iraq, there was no room on the main news last night for the case of Christine Laird, who was accused of lying about her history of depression when she applied for a job with Cheltenham Borough Council.
The council lost its claim of £1m, though the judge also threw out a counter-claim for damages. Outside the court, the council’s chief executive made a very revealing statement …’had the council known Mrs Laird’s medical history, it would most probably not have employed her [as managing director] and incurred the costs it has.’
When I spoke at a conference on stigma and discrimination last week, I said we would all be better off if we could be more open about mental illness, as we are about physical illness, but that in the current climate I totally understood why some chose not to be. Clearly I know no more about Mrs Laird’s case than the little I read yesterday, but that statement sums up why some people may choose to keep any mental health problems to themselves.
I will be making the same points today when I give evidence to the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which is looking at the representation of disabled people in the House of Commons.
When the mental health charities did a survey of MPs last year, it found that one in five had some personal experience of mental health problems. 94 per cent said they had friends or family who had experienced a mental health problem. One in three saw work-based stigma and hostile media reaction as barriers to openness. 75 per cent supported public figures speaking openly about their experiences, but said they felt less able to do so themselves.
I guess that is why they have asked me, as someone who has been open, and who despite attracting a lot of political flak in other areas, has felt relatively little on the subject of my own history of mental illness.
In purely statistical terms, there is little doubt that some of the MPs on today’s panel are likely to have direct experience of mental health problems, and again I understand why they choose not to shout from the rooftops. I wish though that some of them would. I think it would help public understanding if they did. It would help also in terms of the raising of awareness of the issues in Parliament, which in turn has an impact on where resources get directed.
They could also think about repealing section 141 of the Mental Health Act which states that an MP can be removed from their seat if detained under the Act for a period of more than six months. Yet no such provision exists for MPs unable to work because of phsyical disability. The section has never been used, but it is a symbolic piece of straight-forward discrimination.
I will also remind the MPs of the case of former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Brondevik who took time out from his job to recover from a period of depression, found huge public support and sympathy, and went on to be re-elected for a second term.
Of course it is another inquiry, into the war in Iraq, which is getting more attention. I have not seen any of the papers today, but I imagine they will be united in condemnation of the government’s decision to hold the evidence sessions in private. The critics and commentators I saw yesterday will see it as an open and shut case, that there cannot be any argument in favour of the decision Gordon Brown announced yesterday. Yet I thought his arguments deserved a fairer hearing. I can remember when some were advising the government about the risks of the Bloody Sunday public inquiry becoming a never-ending lawyers’ fest, but the politics of the time led to pressure for exactly that kind of inquiry to be set up. It’s still going on.
If the purpose of the inquiry is to establish the truth of what happened, and allow the government to learn lessons from what went right and what went wrong, it is at least possible to make the argument that it might best be done free from the frenzy of 24 hour news. I am not saying whether I think it was the right way or the wrong way to do this, simply that for those who had to make the decision, it is not as one-sided as those calling for it to be held in public would have it.