Mental Health Debate

Speaking in the chamber of the House of Commons debating the issue of mental health on the 9th of December 2015.    Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con):

One of the ways in which we can measure how civilised a society we are is how well we deal with our most vulnerable citizens, and there are few groups more vulnerable in our society than those who suffer from mental illness, yet from when I began working in the health service as a doctor back in the early 1980s to right through my time as a Member of Parliament, mental health services have been the Cinderella subject in the national health service. Let us be very frank: we would never accept the level of care in cardiac disease or orthopaedic disease or cancer for our constituents that we are forced to accept in terms of the treatment for mental illness.

There can be few areas where our advocacy role as Members of Parliament is more important than mental health, because the people involved are very often among the least able and least willing to stand up for themselves in the debate about how the NHS cake is going to be divided out.

We have a role, also, in dealing with what the Secretary of State and the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), talked about as the last taboo. We do have to make societal changes and we can be instrumental in that, and I pay tribute, as the Secretary of State did, to our colleagues in this House who have used their often painful personal experiences to give colour to our debate and to take this issue forward. In all 23 years that I have been in the House of Commons, I cannot remember an attendance as high as that today for a mental health debate. That is indicative of how far we have come.

I very much welcome the Government changes both in terms of the funding they are proposing and the attitudes that have been fostered in recent years, not least, I have to say, during the coalition Government—it was one of the great achievements of that coalition Government that they put mental health much further up the agenda. I am particularly pleased at the announcement the Secretary of State has made about transparency on clinical commissioning group outcomes, because it is not the spending that we need to see, it is the outcomes. That is the crucial element, and I look forward to the details he will be bringing forward on that.

However many rights we give patients, it is the capacity-constraints that will ultimately determine what those outcomes are, and I want to deal with just two or three of them. The Government’s IAPT—improving access to psychological therapies—programme is a great programme. Getting access to talking therapies is, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said, extremely important, but I was asked to do a short piece for the “Victoria Derbyshire” programme on the BBC and we looked at the difference between the best and the worst in the provision of talking therapies.

It is unacceptable, in a national health service that is funded from the single basis of taxation, that in some parts of the country 100% of patients are seen within the Government’s target time, whereas at the other end of the scale, in East Cheshire, which is the worst area, only 4.6% of patients are seen within that time. We can accept something of a discrepancy between the best and the worst, but we cannot accept that level of discrepancy in a health service that is supposedly funded on an equal basis across the whole country.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and others have said, experience suggests that when there is better access to talking therapies, doctors are less likely to prescribe medication, including antidepressants. That is an extremely positive development, because one thing that has worried me about the lack of capacity in mental health services is what I would describe as the medicalisation of unhappiness. Because medical professionals simply do not have the time to talk to patients about the causes of their symptoms, they deal with the symptoms themselves. That is not good medical practice.

The second area that I am concerned about is child and adolescent mental health services. In the 23 years that I have been in the House of Commons, Government after Government of both political persuasions have told us that those services will improve, but I have seen very little sign of it. That matters because about 70% of adult mental health problems will have presented by the age of 17. One would have thought that, knowing that, we would prioritise healthcare early on to minimise the damage that is caused by untreated illness, yet we are still not fulfilling our duty on that front.

The biggest problem we face is that of in-patient capacity. When we debated the closure of the old Victorian asylums, it was very personal for me because I worked in one of those old hospitals. It was genuinely a Dickensian nightmare. There was a great fashion, which was supported right across the House, to move towards care in the community. However, the consequence of not having adequate capacity in the community was that a lot of patients fell through the net. The point has already been made about the large population of those with mental illnesses in our criminal justice system. In effect, we closed one type of inappropriate institution and ended up with patients in a different type of inappropriate institution, and called it progress. That is simply not good enough and we need to do much more to prevent patients who are mentally ill from being incarcerated in our criminal justice system, when they should be treated appropriately for their illness.

We also see patients being put in police cells because there is inadequate capacity in in-patient care. How would we feel if women with breast cancer or diabetic patients were put in police cells because we could not find beds for them? It would be on the front page of every newspaper and lead every news bulletin in our country.

Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) (Lab):

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Fox:

No, I will not.

I would love the money that is being made available for mental health by the Treasury to be ring-fenced in CCGs. If that money is not ring-fenced, it will go elsewhere, for the very reasons I have set out. We need to ensure that the money that is rightly being made available for mental health treatment ends up there and is not siphoned off into areas where the voice for spending is stronger. I would love us to give more support to the wonderful mental health charities out there, such as Marjorie Wallace’s SANE and Mind. All those charities are hugely important.

In closing, I ask the Secretary of State to look at one thing: the incipient crisis of suicide among men in the United Kingdom—a subject that is not hugely talked about. The culture of our society often makes it difficult for men to admit that they are unable to deal with the stresses of life, anxiety and depression. The statistics relating to the worst manifestation of that—suicide—are deeply worrying. British men are three times as likely to die by suicide as British women. Suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35. More than a quarter of the 24 to 34-year-old males who die take their own lives, compared with 13% among women. That is a huge national scandal and we need to give priority to it.

Success or failure in dealing with mental illness in the 21st century in the world’s fifth richest country is not just a judgment on the Government or the NHS, but on our society as a whole and on our basic humanity.

2.14 pm