Mental Illness

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 17th January 1996.

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Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak 10:30 am, 17th January 1996

Time is short and, if the Minister is to be allowed sufficient time to reply—I certainly want that—I must confine myself to one or two short remarks.

It is a coincidence that this debate is taking place in the same week as the confidential inquiry report into homicides and suicides was published, and that the junior Health Minister who set up that inquiry in 1991 is now Secretary of State for Health. In a press release issued at that time, he said: we must insist that if a discharged patient is involved in homicide or similar incidents, every detail of the history of that patient's management is fully examined and the lessons learnt. One such incident is too many. But if a repeat incident occurs because the lessons of the first have not been learnt, we are all culpable. It is sad that, since that time, a number of well-publicised incidents have taken place. Usually, the ones that have received the most publicity have involved the killing of people who were unrelated to a mentally ill person. We have had reports on the Christopher Clunis case and several others, some of which have been mentioned this morning. Can the Minister say, hand on heart, that all the lessons of those reports have been learnt?

The Ritchie report into the Christopher Clunis case said that care in the community for that person was a catalogue of failure and missed opportunity". Other reports have highlighted the lack of co-ordination, which has been mentioned this morning, between the various agencies, the health service and social services.

Those are the cases that have received publicity. The confidential inquiry report has shown that, although there have been 39 homicides, most of them have involved members of the mentally ill person's family and that a far higher number of mentally ill people have committed suicide. It is estimated that one in 10 schizophrenics commit suicide.

I congratulate the previous Secretary of State for Health on her intention to give mental health a higher priority and on "The Health of the Nation" target to reduce suicides among mentally ill people by 33 per cent. Sadly, that target has not been met, and we must ask ourselves why. No doubt the Minister will tell us about the increased resources for mental health services. Figures show that more has been spent, but, as a proportion of the total amount spent on health, the mental health service budget has been declining in importance.

I am sure that no hon. Member present, knowing the experiences that they have had, can say that this country has ever had a first-class mental health service. My father suffered from schizophrenia. In the 1950s and 1960s, I had personal experience of the failures of mental health care. He attempted to take his life and, on one occasion, threatened to murder me. I do not think that that was a serious threat—most mentally ill people are not a danger to the community—but, traditionally, this country has failed mentally ill people. We must give mental health a higher priority.

That is not happening in my constituency in south Birmingham. The figures show a dramatic reduction in the number of psychiatric beds—about 150 since 1985—and only about 85 community psychiatric nurses are in post. I have seen people working in the one mental health centre in the community that we have and have witnessed the stress that they are under. All too often, the service shuts at night and at the weekend. We need 24-hour community services and mental health centres.

The promises that we in south Birmingham were given have not materialised. Mental health centres were promised, but have not been opened, and staff have not been appointed. As a result, all too often, flagrantly mentally ill people receive treatment, but people who, in Marjorie Wallace's words, are silently suffering, are ignored and people, relatives and neighbours who silently, and not so silently, suffer with them are ignored as well.

We must do much more. The concept of community care is supported, but we must have increased resources—it is not enough to say that the resources are sufficient. Last year, in south Birmingham, the mental health service budget was cut by £500,000. This year, it faces a 3 per cent. cut because of so-called efficiency savings. There is no increase in the budget and no possibility that the community services that were promised when Rubery hospital was closed will be provided.

I ask the Minister urgently to consider the position. It is not just a matter of resources, but I note that the confidential inquiry recommends that higher resources should be provided for people who are seriously mentally ill. That is true, but not if there is a shift from other services for people who, as I have said, suffer in silence.