§ Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Clause 4 is the result of work done by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleagues on the working party, seeking to correct clear civil disadvantages that have quite wrongly 339 been imposed on some of our fellow citizens. As mentioned earlier in the debate, the provision will enable those who are in mental hospitals, but who are not detained as offenders or on remand, to vote.
One of the last scandals of the old mental institutions— asylums—is that those who were physically ill and in hospital could vote, provided that they arranged to do so through a postal or proxy vote, whereas those who were in a mental hospital were not able to do so. That was disgraceful.
I should like simply to acknowledge that clause 4 will ensure that we remove some of the remaining stigmas attached to mental illness, and that it will make it absolutely clear that the distinction should be between those who have committed offences and are locked up because they are offenders, and those who may have temporarily lost their liberty or who are unable fully to exercise their liberty simply because they are mentally ill. It is a bit of enlightenment that should have occurred before the first year of the new millennium—if that is what it is—but it has come, and we welcome it.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I support this clause. MIND, which also supports the clause, estimates that 50 per cent. of those concerned would now be entitled to vote, and that the remaining 50 per cent. would benefit from the changes to the voting rules set out in the clause. That is all right and good. Judi Clements, chief executive of MIND, says:For decades, thousands of detained patients have been denied the fundamental right to vote, that the vast majority of us take for granted. This could be a huge victory for the many people who could play their part as UK citizens.It is interesting to note that the word "citizens" is used, given the earlier debate.
MIND has also backed a controversial plan to extend the vote to mentally ill people who have been through the criminal court—a subject that was dealt with earlier. Judi Clements said:This is a far smaller number, but it is inconsistent to give some people on psychiatric wards the vote and not others. They are not being held in prison, but in hospital.I disagree with that. If persons have committed crimes, the fact that they are in a mental hospital as opposed to prison is an inconsistency. It is right that the Government agree with that and have said that, as those who have committed a criminal offence and are detained in prison are not allowed to vote, the same should apply to those held in a mental hospital.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
Surely if somebody is so confused that they are in a mental hospital, they are too confused to determine whether they should vote for the Conservatives, the Labour party, the Liberals or any other party.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend—for whom I have the highest regard—he is labouring under a delusion about the numbers and the sort of people who enter mental hospitals. An interesting statistic is that 25 per cent. of people in the UK will, in the course of their lives, suffer from mental illness—although, of course, only a minority will go, either voluntarily or by force, into a mental hospital.
340 Many such people are not confused at all. Many suffer from anxiety or depression, but not from dementia. Many do not suffer from psychoses such as schizophrenia, which might induce confusion. If I can remember some of my university studies on schizophrenia, there is catatonic, simple and hebephrenic—there are so many different types of schizophrenia, most of which do not involve confusion, as such. My elongated answer to my hon. Friend's reasonable point is that the vast majority of those in mental institutions are easily able to determine which way they wish to vote.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
I wish to support the hon. Gentleman and allay the concerns of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many people who may be too ill to concentrate on voting because of periodic mental illness recover from that quickly—schizophrenia is a good example—just as many are too ill to vote when they are in hospital for a physical ailment? People are not taken off the register because they go into a coma or have an operation.
Many elderly people in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blaby—indeed, in all of our constituencies— in theory may not be as capable of voting as many others. However, there are provisions for dealing with them, such as proxy voting and voting by post. Eventually, if they decide that they are not up to it, they will not do it. However, we cannot categorise one group as being more incapable than another.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman raises a sound point. It is difficult enough for doctors to diagnose various types of mental disorder, without the Government or Parliament trying to diagnose, for the doctor's sake, those who may or may not be temporarily confused. Most people listening to the soundbites and spin from the Labour party are confused most of the time—I certainly am.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
I was always under the impression that the reason why people in mental hospitals were excluded from the right to vote was that it was held that they were not capable of making a rational decision. If that is incorrect, I am glad to be corrected. However, we are talking about a group of people who, by any standard, need care because of their mental condition—perhaps throughout their life. Under the changes that are now being made, where do they stand if they are in a mental hospital?
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman raises a fascinating point. The course of mental illness changes, and people can go in and out of confusion as the course of treatment varies. At one time, certain types of schizophrenia were seen to be permanent. However, with drug treatment and a suitably effective regime, people can drift into and out of consciousness in terms of their ability to make a rational decision on casting their vote:
The hon. Gentleman said that, in the past, it was felt that people in mental institutions should not be allowed to vote. I remind him not only that that was a function of people's prejudices against those spending time in mental institutions, but that there were times in the 1920s when people were put into institutions simply because they had given birth to a child out of wedlock. People were put into mental institutions in the Soviet Union simply 341 because they disagreed with their Government. Not only do we have the problem of deciding who is and who is not capable of voting in a mental institution—and at what time they are capable of voting—but there can be doubt as to whether some people should be in a mental institution or not.
The Government have moved with the times on this matter, and I am pleased that my Front-Bench colleagues support the clause.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)
I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for raising this issue, which was liable to have passed almost unnoticed. As he rightly said, clause 4 is also about residence, but with reference to the registration of detained and voluntary mental patients.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) was labouring under a misapprehension. At present, voluntary mental patients are entitled to register at their home address by means of a patient's declaration. This clause removes that requirement. It also enables all patients in mental hospitals, other than those who are detained as a result of criminal activity—an important qualification—to register in respect of the hospital, if they are liable to be there for some time, or at some other address, such as the address where they would be living if they were not in hospital.
It is important that people resident in mental hospitals, whether they are voluntary or detained patients, should have the same right to register as anybody else. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) talked about confusion, and his point was well answered by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). Mental illness is not a static condition, and it can move over time. To rule someone out, or to make legal judgments about the state of someone's mental health on a continuing basis, would be inappropriate. It would also be a minefield in terms of electoral law.
We must therefore assume that most of those in a ward or a special hospital are there on the basis that they have a condition that may or may not be curable, but that they should enjoy more or less the same rights of citizenship as everybody else, including the right to vote.
§ Mr. Grieve
I wholly agree with the Minister. We all know from experience in our constituency surgeries that some of the people who come to see us are not in mental hospitals but are clearly in a state of confusion that would make it impossible for them to exercise their right to vote, but we do not take them off the electoral register. I am convinced that many people who are detained under the Mental Health Acts are perfectly capable of rationally exercising a right to vote, so in amending the law as the clause does we are removing an anomaly and a stigma that are quite unnecessary.
§ Mr. Howarth
I agree. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and I share an interest in Ashworth special hospital, which is in my constituency. Some of the well-known patients are in there because of a criminal conviction, but others are there simply because they need a period of help to overcome difficulties with 342 their mental health. It would be wrong for those who are there, possibly for a short time but possibly for quite a protracted period, to be excluded from the franchise.
It is important that those who are resident in a mental hospital, whether they are detained or voluntary patients, should have the same right to register as anybody else. There is no reason why people should be disfranchised because of their mental health. I hope that the consensus that we have established will hold, and I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.