NHS and Social Care Commission

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 28th January 2016.

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Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg Liberal Democrat, Sheffield, Hallam 2:10 pm, 28th January 2016

I join all those who have spoken so far in congratulating my right hon. Friend Norman Lamb on securing the debate. It concerns what is undoubtedly one of the biggest questions that we face as a country, as a Parliament, and as a political class: the question of how we can square the circle of an ageing population, and how we can put the NHS on to a sustainable financial footing.

My grandfather was editor of the British Medical Journal from the time when the NHS was founded until the mid-1960s, and I suspect that if he were around today, he would say that the challenges currently faced by the NHS would be entirely unrecognisable to his generation of medics.

It is right that my right hon. Friend is pushing us all to try to sketch out solutions on a cross-party basis. It could be said that he and I tested the virtues and pitfalls of cross-party working to destruction—some would say, unfairly perhaps, to self-destruction—in the last Government. Notwithstanding that experience, however, I think that issues such as pensions, long-term infrastructure investment, Europe, decarbonisation of our economy and, in this context, the sustainability of the NHS are not susceptible to single-Parliament, single-Government, single-party solutions. I therefore say, “All power to my right hon. Friend’s elbow”, and I hope that the Government will look kindly on his proposal.

I intend to dwell on an issue which I hope the commission will subject to real examination, namely the role of mental health in the NHS. We have come a very long way. I remember standing, eight years ago, a little way in front of where I am standing now, shortly after becoming leader of my party, and asking Gordon Brown a question about mental health during Prime Minister’s Question Time. I recall that I was heard in what was almost a slightly shocked silence, because at that time raising the subject of mental health was considered to be rather “novel” and brave. The extent to which the debate has advanced since then is fantastic.

There have been truly moving debates in the Chamber, when a number of our colleagues have spoken for the first time, very openly and movingly, about their own struggles with mental health conditions. Society and the media now talk more comfortably about mental health, and a barrage of celebrities have lent their considerable weight to that. The debate, the rhetoric, and the awareness of mental health as a major challenge that affects one in four of our fellow citizens have been transformed in recent years, which is a wonderful development. We have lifted the lid, lifted the taboo, and lifted the slight foot-shuffling embarrassment that used to overshadow the subject of mental health, which is a great step forward.

I am immensely proud of some of the things that our coalition Government managed to do in pushing the agenda forward and putting mental and physical health on the same legal footing. My right hon. Friend and I worked together closely on the introduction of NHS waiting time standards relating to mental health, which had existed in relation to physical health issues for a long time, and took many other important steps.

What worries me is the growing gap between the rhetoric about mental health and the reality of what is happening on the ground. There will always be a gap, because rhetoric is easier to deliver than change on the ground; there will always be a time lag between the moment when the debate and the policy prescriptions alter, and the moment when that change percolates down to the ground. However, I think that this gap is becoming dangerously wide. That is, of course, very bad for the many patients with mental health conditions who are not being properly treated, but I also think that if we do not address it soon and follow up the rhetoric with action, there will be real cynicism about what the political classes have meant during the journey that we have made over the past few years towards talking more comfortably and openly about mental health issues.

I know that many Members are already familiar with the scale of the problem, but I think it worth illustrating that scale with a couple of facts. Mental health makes up 23% of what is somewhat inelegantly described as the UK disease burden, but it accounts for only 11% of NHS spending, and the majority of people with mental health conditions still go untreated. On average, just 30%—less than a third—eventually gain access to treatment. If that applied to any physical health condition, it would be seen as a Dickensian state of affairs requiring urgent action. I hope that the cross-party commission will think carefully about the step change that is required in the organisation, because support and funding for mental health will be critical to its considerations.

Let me now invite the Minister to focus on three issues, in the short term and in the slightly longer term, because I think that there is currently a blockage that is preventing the rhetoric from being translated into the kind of action that most Members on both sides of the House want to see.

The first issue is that, last year, just before the last Budget of the coalition Government and the general election, I announced, on behalf of the Government, £1.25 billion in funds to transform what could be described as the Cinderella service within the Cinderella service, namely child and adolescent mental health services. It was the most ambitious blueprint ever set out by any Government to transform the service and, indeed, to fund it properly. As the Minister will know, that £1.25 billion equates to roughly a quarter of a billion pounds, or £250 million, to be invested in child and adolescent mental health services per year. Over the last financial year, however, the amount invested has been not £250 million but, I think, £143 million.