By Gill Weatherill, Helen Kingston & Nnena Ene


Published 24 June 2024


With the general election looming, all eyes are on the differences between the parties and how the future may look depending on who ends up in government.  One manifesto pledge the three main parties all have in common, however, relates to changing mental health law. 

In this first of a series of articles tracking the progress of these plans, we look at what the parties are promising on mental health law reform and what this might mean in practice.


What is the current state of play?

In June 2022, the government published its draft Mental Health Bill, which sets out a range of proposed changes to the current Mental Health Act, including the following headline points:

  • Removing those with a learning disability or autism from the scope of section 3 detention (and CTOs)
  • Tightening the criteria for detention and CTOs
  • Amending treatment provisions, including the introduction of statutory care and treatment plans and limiting powers to treat in the face of a capable refusal
  • Replacing 'nearest relative' with 'nominated person', with additional changes to the role
  • Extending Independent Mental Health Advocate access to informal patients

The draft Bill underwent pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee which published its report in January 2023, followed by the government response to this in March 2024.

However, the planned mental health law reforms have not progressed beyond that stage and it is unclear to what extent, if any, a new government will resurrect the provisions in the existing draft Bill.


What is being pledged on mental health law reform?

The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos each include a list of promises aimed at improving mental health services, with many of these focused on increasing resources and access to services, such as opening early support hubs for those aged 11-25 in every local community (Conservatives), recruiting 8,500 new staff to treat children and adults through the first term (Labour) and offering regular mental health check-ups at key points in people’s lives when they are most vulnerable to mental ill-health (Liberal Democrats).

What, though, do the main parties have to say on the specific issue of mental health law reform?

The Conservative Party's manifesto states that it will: "Pass a new law to provide better treatment and support for severe mental health needs in the first session of the next Parliament".  It is not clear whether the reference to passing "a new law" here refers to the draft Mental Health Bill or something else, but this appears to be a commitment to move forward with the legislative change process started by the current government.

The Labour Party's manifesto states: "Mental health legislation is also woefully out of date. The treatment of people with autism and learning difficulties is a disgrace. The operation of the Mental Health Act discriminates against Black people who are much more likely to be detained than others. Labour will modernise legislation to give patients greater choice, autonomy, enhanced rights and support, and ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect throughout treatment", hinting that some elements of the draft Mental Health Bill around keeping those with a learning disability or autism out of hospital, tightening detention criteria and giving people more control over their treatment may form part of Labour's mental health law reform proposals if it comes to power.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat Party's manifesto also refers specifically to "Ending inappropriate and costly inpatient placements for people with learning disabilities and autism" and "Modernising the Mental Health Act to strengthen people’s rights, give them more choice and control over their treatment and prevent inappropriate detentions", which similarly points to the possibility of preserving elements of the draft Mental Health Bill in some form.


What next?

Whichever party wins the election, their manifesto pledges suggest that moving forward with mental health law reform is likely to be relatively high up on the political agenda.

Whilst the nature and extent of that reform remains to be seen, a change of government could potentially bring with it big changes both in terms of the legal framework and operational delivery challenges.

We will be closely following the progress of these plans for mental health law reform and will continue to keep you updated in future articles tracking developments on this as they happen.