Ed Miliband attends the launch of an online mental health resource. Photo: Getty
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It is no longer enough for our parties just to talk about mental health

Since the last election, mental health has risen higher in the agenda than many campaigners even dreamt of. Labour, however, is behaving as though just talking about the issue is still good enough. 

Of all the many depressing developments in politics over the past years there has been the odd beam of light breaking through the cloud; one such beam is mental health. Mental health has become steadily more and more important in Westminster politics and now it figures as a significant element in each party’s health policy. Every party will at the very least mention mental health in the short paragraphs that they will try and win the public’s votes with. But lip service is no longer enough and sadly Labour in particular is guilty of doing just that.

It’s not all that often that the Lib Dems are called the most progressive of the three main parties and although it would be contentious to call them the most progressive party on mental health, it is not controversial to say that they are the clearest on it. Nick Clegg’s conference speech last year was filled with mental health announcements, including the much lauded announcement creating waiting times for the first time for mental health. Despite the fact that the financial figures used in his speech were a mish-mash of government plans and manifesto promises, the Lib Dem website explicitly lists the party’s financial commitment for mental health. £400m is to go on psychological therapies and £54m on widening children’s access to mental health care.

The Conservative party has publically declared mental health to be a priority, Jeremy Hunt’s conference speech last year proved as much. But when it comes to specific policy commitments there are none of any substance. This makes a degree of sense since mental health seems to have largely been delegated to their coalition partners. However, this excuse is not one that Labour can use; Andy Burnham has won a fair amount of praise for his adoption of "whole-person care", an integrated system of health and social care, giving due priority to mental health. Beyond this though, there has been little progress toward any kind of precise figures and/or policy.

Whereas the Lib Dems have pledge £54m to the problem, Ed Miliband has so far only really identified that children’s mental health is a problem. Children’s mental health services have suffered a real terms cut of 6 per cent since 2010, a "neglect" that Miliband has rightly pledged to stop. Aside from showing us how much they have been cut and saying that Labour will increase spending, we are voting blind on this; how much will they increase spending by? When?  Where will they target the money?

Labour’s recently released independent report on mental health by Stephen O’Brien, which has been two years in the making, has committed the same crime as the central party; it comprehensively identified the problems and false economies in our current approach, but it hasn’t provided any solutions. This is a problem across all parties; considering that the field is pretty well open for any of the main 5 parties to play a role in the next government, there is a worrying lack of specifics and figures. The election is 92 days away, that is fair enough, but soon enough they will need to tell us what they intend to do.

There is an opportunity right now, before the manifestos are launched, for the political parties to take mental health seriously enough to get specific and set out their spending plans. Mental health funding is in dire straits and it is absolutely not adequate just to say you think it’s important. If Labour is not careful, this playing-it-safely approach will give the other parties an open goal on mental health, in much the same way that they let the Tories score on postgraduate funding. As the main opposition party, they cannot let that happen. 

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.