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How Much Longer Will The Government's Betrayal Of Mental Health Continue?

22/09/2016 10:04
Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive

New figures show that more than half of local areas are not delivering on the Government's mental health spending pledge

In January, the then Prime Minister David Cameron promised a revolution in mental health. Almost a billion pounds of investment was pledged to improve mental health services across the country. Beneficiaries of the funding were to include child and adolescent services, as well as provision in the community and hospital emergency departments. The Prime Minister called for an end to 'sweeping mental health issues under the carpet.' It was, he said, time for a frank and open discussion on the matter.

This was not the first bold claim that the Government has made about mental health. "Parity of esteem" has been enshrined in law for the past four years, courtesy of the Health and Social Care Act - meaning that mental health should be treated in exactly the same way as our physical health.

Considered at face value, these headline-grabbing announcements, along with countless others we have heard from Ministers over the past six years, paint a very rosy picture indeed. But for patients, and nurses and doctors working on the frontline of our NHS, the story is an altogether different one. In reality this Government's approach to mental health has been characterised by nothing more than hollow gestures and empty promises. Much of the one billion pounds pledged at the beginning of the year was exposed as not being new at all. In many cases stretched Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) are diverting funding away from mental health to prop up acute services.

And parity of esteem? It was thanks to a Labour amendment in the House of Lords back in 2012 that the principle was written into law. Ministers' don't hold back from mentioning its existence, but for all their talk of parity of esteem, it is clear that we are very far away from any semblance of equality between physical health and mental health. This Government has presided over services stretched to breaking point, patients at risk, and proper standards of care being undermined. There are staff cuts, massive waiting lists and bed shortages. By all accounts, the Government is betraying the millions of people in our country who experience a mental health condition.

Today I have released more evidence which proves the gulf between what Ministers say they will do and what is actually happening on the ground. Figures I have uncovered through a series of Freedom of Information requests show that 57 per cent - more than half of CCGs across the country - plan to reduce the proportion of their budget they spend on mental health this year (2016/17). This is in spite of a key government commitment that every CCG in the country would increase their spend on mental health at least in line with overall budget increases.

I have had to conduct this research because the Coalition Government stopped publishing the annual survey of mental health spend. This is the third year in a row I have been able to prove that the Government has yet again failed to honour its spending promise. This time last year, a third of CCGs planned to decrease the proportion of their budget spent on mental health. This year the majority of CCGs are planning a reduction, indicating that it is becoming more and more difficult for CCGs to meet the Government's target.

Yesterday the Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on mental health which shed even more light on how difficult the journey ahead is going to be. It questioned how the Government could commit to improving services when the cash flow to support its ambitions is simply not being made available.

There are too many people today experiencing mental health problems who can only access help when they have already reached crisis point. We need investment in prevention, early diagnosis and intervention. We cannot ignore the ticking time bomb that is the product of stripping out so much early intervention. Theresa May acknowledged this during her first speech as Prime Minister, when she said, "If you suffer from mental health problems, there's not enough help to hand."

It is vital that our new Prime Minister steps in and makes sure that mental health services get the funding they so desperately need - and which they have been promised - before it is too late. If she doesn't, she risks failing a generation and allowing a dangerous situation to become critical.

Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health

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