Another three years to wait for 0.7% overseas aid?

The Tories have again delayed their pledge to meet the UN aid spending target.

The Observer yesterday reported that the Department for International Development (DFID) have pushed back their commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013 to 2015. The report is based on the new update to DFID’s business plan which now lists the end date for both the commitment to legislate and also the commitment to meet the UN spending target as "Mar 2015".

I’ve written for The Staggers several times about the government’s slow back-track on this commitment, here, here and here. The commitment is clear. The coalition agreement, says on page 22:

We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and enshrine this commitment in law.

But, on page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the commitment, and the timing of it, was more explicit:

Will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.

The Observer suggests that Labour will try to force the government’s hand by using a private member's bill from a Labour member of the development select committee. Previously, the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, told Channel 4 News that the bill is ready and that "the law will come… but it must take its place in the queue."

Previously, I speculated that the go-slow was simply to avoid the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion. But the change to DFID’s business plan suggests that the legislative delay is necessary because the policy itself is to be delayed. This move might be popular with the public at a time when public finances are under pressure, but it would represent a breach of trust and would break the manifesto commitments of both governing parties.

Next week, IPPR and the ODI are publishing a report on UK public attitudes towards international aid and development as a contribution to the next phase of UK campaigning on poverty reduction and global development. Broken promises from the government risk returning the political and public debate on development to an unproductive political competition about spending, at the expense of the conversation that the public want to hear about results, change and progress in the developing world.

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. One reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. A broken promise on 0.7% would significantly damage the UK’s international position as a leading advocate for development and poverty reduction.

Next week sees the eagerly awaited publication of the ONE campaign’s DATA report that assess the record of rich countries against the promises they have made to the world’s poorest. The UK’s ability to pressure other donors to keep their promises will be seriously compromised if the Government reneges on its own commitment.

If David Cameron is going to show global leadership as the co-chair of the panel creating the next set of international development goals, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the opposition in his own party. Labour’s private member's bill may force his hand but a true global leader doesn’t whip from behind, they lead from the front.

Update: DFID have been in touch and say: "The position has not changed. The Bill is ready and will be introduced when Parliamentary time allows. The Business Plan has been updated to reflect the final date by which the Bill can be made law within this Parliament.”

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on twitter: @RDarlo

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell looks at a refugee at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty Images
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British mental health is in crisis

The headlines about "parity of esteem" between mental and physical health remain just that, warns Benedict Cooper. 

I don’t need to look very far to find the little black marks on this government’s mental health record. Just down the road, in fact. A short bus journey away from my flat in Nottingham is the Queens Medical Centre, once the largest hospital in Europe, now an embattled giant.

Not only has the QMC’s formerly world-renowned dermatology service been reduced to a nub since private provider Circle took over – but that’s for another day – it has lost two whole mental health wards in the past year. Add this to the closure of two more wards on the other side of town at the City Hospital, the closure of the Enright Close rehabilitation centre in Newark, plus two more centres proposed for closure in the imminent future, and you’re left with a city already with half as many inpatient mental health beds as it had a year ago and some very concerned citizens.

Not that Nottingham is alone - anything but. Over 2,100 mental health beds had been closed in England between April 2011 and last summer. Everywhere you go there are wards being shuttered; patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get treatment in wards often well over-capacity, incidents of violence against mental health workers is increasing, police officers are becoming de facto frontline mental health crisis teams, and cuts to community services’ budgets are piling the pressure on sufferers and staff alike.

It’s particularly twisted when you think back to solemn promises from on high to work towards “parity of esteem” for mental health – i.e. that it should be held in equal regard as, say, cancer in terms of seriousness and resources. But that’s becoming one of those useful hollow axioms somehow totally disconnected from reality.

NHS England boss Simon Stevens hails the plan of “injecting purchasing power into mental health services to support the move to parity of esteem”; Jeremy Hunt believes “nothing less than true parity of esteem must be our goal”; and in the House of Commons nearly 18 months ago David Cameron went as far as to say “In terms of whether mental health should have parity of esteem with other forms of health care, yes it should, and we have legislated to make that the case”. 

Odd then, that the president of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Michael Shooter, unveiling a major report, “Psychological therapies and parity of esteem: from commitment to reality” nine months later, should say that the gulf between mental and physical health treatment “must be urgently addressed”.  Could there be some disparity at work, between medical reality and government healthtalk?

One of the rhetorical justifications for closures is the fact that surveys show patients preferring to be treated at home, and that with proper early intervention pressure can be reduced on hospital beds. But with overall bed occupancy rates at their highest ever level and the average occupancy in acute admissions wards at 104 per cent - the RCP’s recommended rate is 85 per cent - somehow these ideas don’t seem as important as straight funding and capacity arguments.

Not to say the home-treatment, early-intervention arguments aren’t valid. Integrated community and hospital care has long been the goal, not least in mental health with its multifarious fragments. Indeed, former senior policy advisor at the Department of Health and founder of the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) Dr Albert Persaud tells me as early as 2000 there were policies in place for bringing together the various crisis, home, hospital and community services, but much of that work is now unravelling.

“We were on the right path,” he says. “These are people with complex problems who need complex treatment and there were policies for what this should look like. We were creating a movement in mental health which was going to become as powerful as in cancer. We should be building on that now, not looking at what’s been cut”.

But looking at cuts is an unavoidable fact of life in 2015. After a peak of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in 2010, spending fell in real terms by £50 million in the first three years of the Coalition. And in July this year ITV News and children’s mental health charity YoungMinds revealed a total funding cut of £85 million from trusts’ and local authorities’ mental health budgets for children and teenagers since 2010 - a drop of £35 million last year alone. Is it just me, or given all this, and with 75 per cent of the trusts surveyed revealing they had frozen or cut their mental health budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15, does Stevens’ talk of purchasing “power” sound like a bit of a sick joke?

Not least when you look at figures uncovered by Labour over the weekend, which show the trend is continuing in all areas of mental health. Responses from 130 CCGs revealed a fall in the average proportion of total budgets allocated to mental health, from 11 per cent last year to 10 per cent in 2015/16. Which might not sound a lot in austerity era Britain, but Dr Persaud says this is a major blow after five years of squeezed budgets. “A change of 1 per cent in mental health is big money,” he says. “We’re into the realms of having less staff and having whole services removed. The more you cut and the longer you cut for, the impact is that it will cost more to reinstate these services”.

Mohsin Khan, trainee psychiatrist and founding member of pressure group NHS Survival, says the disparity in funding is now of critical importance. He says: “As a psychiatrist, I've seen the pressures we face, for instance bed pressures or longer waits for children to be seen in clinic. 92 per cent of people with physical health problems receive the care they need - compared to only 36 per cent of those with mental health problems. Yet there are more people with mental health problems than with heart problems”.

The funding picture in NHS trusts is alarming enough. But it sits in yet a wider context: the drastic belt-tightening local authorities and by extension, community mental health services have endured and will continue to endure. And this certainly cannot be ignored: in its interim report this July, the Commission on acute adult psychiatric care in England cited cuts to community services and discharge delays as the number one debilitating factor in finding beds for mental health patients.

And last but not least, there’s the role of the DWP. First there’s what the Wellcome Trust describes as “humiliating and pointless” - and I’ll add, draconian - psychological conditioning on jobseekers, championed by Iain Duncan Smith, which Wellcome Trusts says far from helping people back to work in fact perpetuate “notions of psychological failure”. Not only have vulnerable people been humiliated into proving their mental health conditions in order to draw benefits, figures released earlier in the year, featured in a Radio 4 File on Four special, show that in the first quarter of 2014 out of 15,955 people sanctioned by the DWP, 9,851 had mental health problems – more than 100 a day. And the mental distress attached to the latest proposals - for a woman who has been raped to then potentially have to prove it at a Jobcentre - is almost too sinister to contemplate.

Precarious times to be mentally ill. I found a post on care feedback site Patient Opinion when I was researching this article, by the daughter of a man being moved on from a Mental Health Services for Older People (MHSOP) centre set for closure, who had no idea what was happening next. Under the ‘Initial feelings’ section she had clicked ‘angry, anxious, disappointed, isolated, let down and worried’. The usual reasons were given for the confusion. “Patients and carers tell us that they would prefer to stay at home rather than come into hospital”, the responder said at one point. After four months of this it fizzled out and the daughter, presumably, gave up. But her final post said it all.

“There is no future for my dad just a slow decline before our eyes. We are without doubt powerless – there is no closure just grief”.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.