Norman Lamb: The Government must set out its plan for mental health

Norman Lamb MP has challenged the Government to provide a clear plan for implementing the recommendations of the Mental Health Five Year Forward View.

The long-awaited report of the independent Mental Health Taskforce, published last week, highlighted the desperate state of mental health care in England. It contained 58 recommendations to improve services – including the introduction of comprehensive waiting time standards in mental health, 24-hour access to care for everyone suffering a mental health crisis, and an end to the practice of people with mental illness being shunted across the country to receive care.

However, the Government has so far failed to outline a clear strategy for implementing these recommendations. Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday (23rd February), Health Minister Alistair Burt could only offer the vague promise of a series of “rolling responses” to the Taskforce’s report, without laying out any steps for achieving its vision.

People with mental illness still do not enjoy the same right to access treatment on time as people with physical health conditions; and because these access rights determine where the money goes in the NHS, mental health has always been under-funded. Norman Lamb and Nick Clegg began to rectify this in government by securing the first ever NHS waiting time standards in mental health, as a starting point in an ambitious programme that by 2020 would aim to provide a comprehensive set of access rights.  The Taskforce report endorsed this ambition, but the Government is yet to clarify how and when this ambition will become a reality.

The Minister was also unable to put forward a strategy or timetable for ending the scandal of out of area mental health placements. During a House of Commons debate led by Norman Lamb in December, Alistair Burt pledged to develop a plan to reduce long-distance inpatient admissions after considering the findings of the Taskforce report and Lord Crisp’s Commission on Acute Adult Psychiatric Care.

Both reports have now concluded that the practice is unacceptable and should be eliminated nationally. However, when pressed for a timetable by Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Burt could only say that he’d “like to see it done as fast as reasonably practicable”.

As well as calling for a clear action plan, the Liberal Democrats are holding the Government to account to ensure that the Taskforce’s recommendations are properly funded. The report said that its recommended changes will require an extra £1 billion by 2020; but while the Government claims to have accepted this demand, it is believed that much of this money will be recycled from previous announcements, or taken from other parts of the health system that are already at breaking point and do not have resources to spare. The Minister’s response to questions from MPs did not shed any light on exactly how much additional investment mental health will receive over the next five years, or where this funding would come from.

Commenting after the questions in the House of Commons, Norman Lamb said:

“This report sets out a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver real and lasting change to mental health services. But there has been a disappointing lack of detail in the Government’s response so far, even though ministers have had many months to prepare.

“Mental health has always been the Cinderella service of the NHS, and change can only be delivered if there is a drive, ambition and clear vision at the heart of government. The ‘Future in Mind’ blueprint for transforming mental health services for children and young people, the Crisis Care Concordat, the first ever waiting time standards in mental health – these were all secured by the Liberal Democrats in government as part of a wider mission to achieve equality for mental health.

“Paul Farmer’s Taskforce report endorses and builds on these important steps, but it is simply no good for the minister to stand at the despatch box and offer vague promises of a rolling programme of reform. With no detailed plan for delivering the change that’s needed, there is a real risk that nothing will happen. Crucial proposals will be kicked into the long grass, and we will find ourselves in 2019 with the mental health system brought to its knees, and realise that the Government has left it too late.

“I am calling on the Government to develop, without delay, a clear and timetabled strategy for implementing the Taskforce’s recommendations in full. We cannot afford to waste any time - and with NHS commissioners already planning next year’s services, the Government has to act immediately.”

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