The changes will toughen protections for people who find themselves in emergency mental health care (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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People detained under the Mental Health Act will be given a greater say over how they are treated and allowed to nominate someone to represent them in the biggest overhaul of mental health laws in 40 years.

The plans are part of a long-delayed Government white paper, which will reform the Mental Health Act 1983, published today.

The draft law will allow patients to nominate someone who can represent them in dealings with the authorities and try to address the disproportionate number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people who are detained under the existing law.

Black people are over four times more likely to be detained under the Act, and ten times more likely to be put on a Community Treatment Order.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said reform of the 40 year old Mental Health Act was essential "to bring mental health laws into the 21st century".

He added:  “These reforms will rightly see people not just as patients, but as individuals, with rights, preferences, and expertise, who are able to rely on a system which supports them and only intervenes proportionately, and which has their health and wellbeing as its centre.

Matt Hancock said it was time to bring the Mental Health Act into the 21st century
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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“This is a significant moment in how we support those with serious mental health issues, which will give people more autonomy over their care and will tackle disparities for all who access services, in particular for people from minority ethnic backgrounds.”

The Government will consult on a number of proposed changes, including introducing ‘Advance Choice Documents’, so people can set out their wishes for what will happen to them should they ever end up in need of emergency mental health care.

Ministers are also planning on strengthening rules so that people with autism or disabilities are not detained under the act.

They have also set out an ambition to end the “outdated practice” of using prisons as “places of safety” for defendants, with plans for judges to work with medical professionals to ensure they are taken directly to a healthcare setting from court.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “Prisons should be places where offenders are punished and rehabilitated, not a holding pen for people whose primary issue is their mental health.

“Keeping people safe must be at the heart of everything this Government does, and the reforms announced today will allow us to do this while ensuring offenders still get the treatment their conditions require.”

The white paper builds on recommendations made by Sir Simon Wessely’s independent review of the Mental Health Act in 2018.

Consultations on areas that require legislation will run until early spring, and a draft Mental Health Bill will be shared next year.

Claire Murdoch, Mental Health Director for NHS England, said: “The proposed reforms are a welcome step towards ensuring that people with mental health needs, a learning disability or autism, remain at the centre of decisions about their care and that longstanding inequalities in experience and outcomes are addressed."

Sophie Corlett from mental health charity Mind said the changes "cannot come soon enough" for the "thousands of people subject to poor, sometimes appalling, treatment".

She welcomed the focus on racial disparities: “It is important those who have been detained under the Mental Health Act, as well as their loved ones, feed into the consultation, helping shape the reforms.

"Given Black people are four times more likely to be sectioned than white people, it’s crucial the Government hears from people from different Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.

"We want to see steps taken to identify, address and tackle underlying and systemic racism that results in disproportionate detentions and use of force.”