Children and Mental Health Services — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:40 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 3:40 pm, 16th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate Andrew Griffiths on securing this important debate. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed some extremely moving testimony from their own lives and their experience as constituency MPs. I will refer to some of their contributions during my speech.

Fundamentally, children’s mental health services are in crisis because the funding is inadequate and prevention has been cut at a time when the pressures on children are higher than they have ever been. Difficulties in childhood, such as growing up in poverty or experiencing neglect, abuse or childhood bereavement, which my hon. Friend Louise Haigh spoke about, can have a huge impact on a child’s mental health. There are also new pressures that affect all children, which many of us did not experience, such as the increase in exams and tests at school and the rise of social media, which has created new forms of bullying and has put new pressure on children in relation to their self-image and how they feel about their bodies.

I want to explore the issue of childhood trauma a little more, because it plays an important role in developing higher incidence of childhood mental ill health. There are three high-risk factors that indicate that a newborn baby’s life chances will be dramatically reduced: having a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, having a parent with severe mental ill health, or witnessing a parent being subjected to domestic violence. Any one of those three factors creates a significant risk for the child, but shockingly 16,000 babies are born every year in this country to parents with all three of those risk factors.

Without intervention and support, those children have very little chance in life. They will become the young people committing knife crime. They will end up in the care system. They will fill our prisons, as my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer pointed out. They will end up living on the streets, develop mental ill health and die younger. My hon. Friend Hugh Gaffney pointed out the alarming increase in the rate of suicides.

One in three mental health conditions relates directly to adverse childhood experiences. A study by Safelives shows that more than half of children who witness domestic violence develop behavioural problems and have difficulty forming relationships later in life. Their fragile young minds are deeply traumatised by seeing their mother beaten up by a violent and abusive partner in their home, which should be a safe space in which to grow up. Professionals do not always recognise that the problem underlying what they may term “difficult behaviour” may be mental ill health caused by traumatic experiences in earlier childhood. Professionals who work with children are not routinely trained on how trauma can affect behaviour, so the child does not get the help they really need. We need services to get dramatically better at identifying when challenging behaviour comes from trauma so we can treat the problem at source, rather than continuing to fail the child, who had precious little chance from the moment they were born.

Mental ill health affects not only the most vulnerable young people, of course. As we have heard, one in eight children experiences mental ill health, yet the recent NHS mental health prevalence survey found that only one in four young people with a mental disorder is seen by a mental health specialist. My right hon. Friend Mr Jones is right to call for better access to care. As my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury said, on average it can take three visits to a GP before a child is referred for specialist assessment. They then have to wait an average of six months for treatment to start. Of course, there are far worse waiting periods. My hon. Friend Gloria De Piero spoke about a 72-week wait, and my hon. Friend John Woodcock spoke about a young man, Drew, waiting 15 months for a CAMHS assessment. In that time, the child’s mental health condition gets worse. It is a very long time for the child, with very serious implications for the rest of their lives.

Many more severe mental health problems could be avoided if we invested more in early help and prevention. We know it works, but the cross-party Local Government Association points out that children’s services face a £3 billion funding shortfall, to which my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid referred. That means that the lack of early intervention work is now reaching an absolute crisis point. This country is failing some of the most vulnerable children in our society and then blaming them for our failure to provide the help that they needed. Thousands of young people did not have a chance from the moment they were born.

I have the highest regard for the Minister from our previous interactions on related issues. I know that she is deeply committed to these issues, so I hope she will act on what she has heard today. I have some questions of my own to ask before she responds. Will she ring-fence NHS mental health budgets and require that they be spent on mental health services, rather than being reallocated elsewhere, as we are currently seeing? Will she invest in prevention and early help, rather than waiting for mental health problems that develop early in a child’s life to turn into crises as they grow up? Will she ensure that children’s services professionals are trained to recognise trauma and provide appropriate care that meets the child’s needs, rather than blaming them for behaviours that have arisen because of the trauma that they have experienced? Will she make sure babies born to parents with the highest risk factors get the support they need from the moment they are born, rather than allowing their lives to be written off and wasted? I hope very much that we will hear positive responses from the Minister, because no country that loves its children can keep treating them like this.