Amendment 5

Part of Health and Care Bill - Committee (Day 1) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 11th January 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Merron Baroness Merron Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 6:30 pm, 11th January 2022

My Lords, I feel that today’s debate on this important group of amendments should carry much weight because, at its core, this is about treating people as whole people and seeing them as physical, mental and social beings. Our welfare on each of those fronts is absolutely key to the others. It is not possible simply to treat one without regard to the others, and it is crucial that we enhance people’s well-being across our whole complexity as human beings.

I am glad to speak to this group of amendments because, as we have heard across all sides of the Committee throughout today’s debate, the reality is that, despite the best efforts encapsulated in the mandate, and many times in policy, we find that competing priorities, an avalanche of guidance and instructions, and events—the pandemic has been referred to several times, of course—mean that mental health services can be, and indeed have been, relatively left behind. As the Centre for Mental Health reports:

“Mental health problems account for 28% of the burden of disease but only 13% of NHS spending.”

In the debate today we have also asked ourselves: where is the accountability? For example, we know that in many clinical commissioning groups the actual spend on mental health was below what it was supposed to be, yet there have been no consequences. We need to address not just the finances but the mechanisms around it and the impact on individuals.

The founding National Health Service Act 1946 rightly spoke of a comprehensive health service that secured the improvement of both physical and mental health, and subsequent Acts, quite rightly, have confirmed this. In operational terms, the Government require NHS England to work for parity of esteem for mental and physical health through this NHS mandate, but we know, and have heard again today, that this requirement falls down when we go to a local level.

One way or another, we will all be familiar with a whole range of stories of people who have not been able to access treatment in a timely manner or who find that they are pushed around a system with very little effect and discharged from care before it is appropriate, with consequences that are all too clear to see. It is difficult to overestimate just how challenging this is, not just for the individuals but for local commissioners, because they face competing pressures in trying to deal with this.

As has been emphasised, this group of amendments is about not just getting on the road to financial parity, important though that is, but changing the culture and the whole means of monitoring and implementation, so that disparities can be addressed—indeed, if possible, so that difficulties can be headed off at the pass. It is a well-worn phrase, but it sometimes seems that mental health is a Cinderella service—the one that can be cut first, to the benefit of the more visible services. Some of the recent statistics show that one in four mental health beds has been cut in the last decade, while just last year 37% of children referred by a professional to mental health services were turned away. That is a shocking statistic that we need to move away from.

I thank noble Lords for promoting these amendments and for their contributions illustrating what they mean and the reason we need them today. The noble Lords, Lord Stevens and Lord Patel, made timely points about the impact of the pandemic. If this is not a moment for focusing more on mental health, I do not know what is. The challenge we have and the difficulty presented by the pandemic is that while there is a focus on cutting waits for operations—and we know that is important—this could be a reason for mental health services to get somewhat lost, when in fact the pandemic reminds us of the importance of mental health and the need for the NHS to meet the needs that there now are.

The amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, encourages and directs the actions necessary for transparency on expenditure. I recall that they were referred to in the debate as legislative levers, and that is indeed what they can be. For me, they encourage not just accountability and transparency but actual action and change—the change we need to see.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, referred to parity of esteem having to be applied locally, not just at a higher level. That is the only way we will see a difference in mental health services and improve the mental health of people in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, made reference to the fact that legislation is trying to catch up with where we are as a society, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, referring back to the meeting he attended, said that the public are well ahead of the game. I believe that is true. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, said, we have to prepare for tomorrow. It is not satisfactory that we stay stuck in today, or indeed in the past.

In my view, these amendments move us on. They bring mental health services into real parity with physical health services, but they also connect mental and physical together. I hope they will find favour from the Minister.