At a time of spending cuts and squeezed budgets at every level of government, people with mental illness and their families are understandably nervous about the future. They are seeing services they used to rely on being drastically scaled back or shut down completely. It's a worrying time.
They also know from experience that mental health services are particularly vulnerable because they have historically been seen as an 'easy' cut to make. People with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are understandably not always the ones who shout the loudest when it comes to influencing local spending decisions.
When the cuts first began to bite, many people with a mental illness and their families, who make up the membership of my charity, Rethink Mental Illness, started to get in touch to tell us about the closure of vital services in their area. They could see the impact of cuts all around them, but they wanted to get a better grip on the bigger picture. They wanted to know how much their council was spending on mental health compared to the year before and compared to other parts of the country.
It sounded like a more than reasonable request to us, but over a year after we first set out to find this data, we are still no closer to the truth. You might expect that local councils have to publish detailed budgets every year, explaining how much money they're planning to spend on different aspects of social care - they don't. The only way we could get hold of any meaningful information, was by carrying out individual Freedom of Information (FOI) requests with local councils across the country.
Fewer than half came back with the figures we asked for. Some refused to give us the figures at all, on the basis that they had to report them to central government later in the year anyway. When those figures were eventually published, three months after the budgets had been set, we compared them with the figures we'd been given through the FOI requests, to check they were consistent. We soon realised they weren't. In fact, 90% of figures they reported to government were completely different to the ones they'd given to us.
This left us in an impossible position. Which figures were correct? Each council gave us a different story and we were still no closer to the truth. What concerns us the most, is that if we, as a national charity with research and policy teams can't get hold of the numbers, what chance do ordinary people have?
It shouldn't be this hard. Here at Rethink Mental Illness, we don't think ordinary people should be expected to issue FOI requests to their local councils or analyze endless complex spreadsheets of raw data on government websites simply to find our if spending on mental health is being cut in their area.
What we're asking for is simple. Once budgets are set, we want local authorities to clearly spell out how much money they're planning to spend on mental health, and every other aspect of social are in their area. We want them to present this information in a way which ordinary people can understand, and we want them to make it easy for people to access.
These basic democratic rights are more important now than ever, as the 'localism' agenda shifts huge swathes of power away from central government and towards local authorities. Councils have never had so much freedom over how they spend their money, we think the least they can do is tell us what they're doing with it.
The report we're launching today, 'Lost in Localism' details our struggle to get hold of meaningful, consistent information about local government spending and is an invitation to Ministers to work with us and other stakeholders to come up with workable solutions to the problem.
Without this basic information, it's impossible for individuals or organisations to enter into any kind of meaningful debate about spending on mental health. It means cuts vital services such as supported housing which helps people with severe mental illnesses live independently, are being made under a shroud of secrecy.