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.