It is an honour to follow Gillian Keegan, with whom I work closely and proudly on the all-party parliamentary group on radiotherapy.
When the NHS long-term plan was published, the emphasis on strengthening preventive care was a welcome step in the right direction. Good preventive care and public health are kinder and cheaper than the late interventions that are often caused by not addressing issues that could have been spotted earlier.
The Government’s actions since then suggest that their commitment to preventive care was little more than smoke and mirrors. Having loudly proclaimed their commitment to preventive healthcare, Ministers ever so quietly, ever so slyly, just before the Christmas recess, sneaked out £85 million-worth of cuts to public health budgets. That money is used for key services, as we have heard, such as preventive mental healthcare, preventive physical healthcare, “stop smoking” clinics, sexual health clinics, and drug and alcohol misuse services. The Government may say that public health spending is the decision of local authorities, but all they have done is give them the responsibility to care for their communities while leaching away much of the resource that would enable them to do so. Councils’ public health budgets, which fund school nurses and public mental health services, have been reduced by £600 million since 2015. In Cumbria, the public health budget is set to be slashed by half a million pounds, and it is one of the 10 local authorities receiving the least money per head from the Conservative Government. Cumbria’s spending is now set to drop to just £36 per head—barely half the national average of £63 per head, and ridiculously lower than that of the City of London, which receives £241 per head.
The impact of this has of course been tangible. School nurses not only provide a host of services but are a valuable source of health education for children and young people—a place to turn to as they try to navigate the complexities of adolescence. The removal from schools of health professionals who contribute so much to children’s health education means that children are vulnerable to slipping into bad mental, dental and physical health. In 2015, the coalition Government made a commitment to spend £25 million a year on Cumbria’s public health, but cuts to spending since then mean that Cumbria gets less than £18 million a year. Pernicious, heavy cuts to the public health budget mean that Cumbria now only spends a pathetic 75p per child per year on preventive mental health care.
In the face of this, young people themselves are determined to fight for better mental health provision. In my constituency, the CAMHS crisis service was not available at the weekend or after school hours in south Cumbria until our community campaign forced local health bosses to change this. But we still have an awfully long way to go. Proper investment in public health budgets would allow us to place a mental health worker in every school. The key to young people being resilient and healthy, and to making sure that problems do not become so severe further down the line, is surely to do just that.
The Government’s failure to take prevention seriously puts at risk a range of preventive health measures—physical as well as mental. I very much welcome the Minister to her new role. She is the most senior Blackburn Rovers supporter to sit on the Front Bench since Jack Straw; I hope she does far better than he. The question that she must answer is this: when the Government verbally prioritised preventive care but then cut public health by £85 million, were they being deliberately cynical or was it mere incompetence? Either way, will she fix this matter and restore public health funding to Cumbria and elsewhere so that we can tackle mental and physical health problems before they become tragically serious?