Given the challenges facing the UK at present - including Brexit, a housing crisis and a crisis in the NHS - there has perhaps never been before been so much commentary in the media before a Chancellor unveiled a budget. In the event, this budget confounded quite a few members of the commentariat, while being overshadowed by projections of slowing economic growth.
In terms of mental health policy, the overwhelming concern of organisations in the mental health sector was that a means would be found to improve the lot of our frontline mental health services, which despite recent Government financial commitments, are still experiencing a near-continual crisis. Almost daily we now see headlines of sad stories of children, young people and adults rapidly deteriorating or even ending their lives, following an inability to access the help they so desperately need on the NHS. Clearly, this situation cannot go on.
It should be noted, however, that the reason for this crisis is largely because of the crisis facing the rest of the NHS. Clinical Commissioners frequently find themselves requring extra money - for A & E Services in a winter crisis for example - and may take the tough decision to use money which was allocated to mental health services (the Government is committed to an extra £1 billion to go to mental health by 2021).
Nobody would wish to have to make that sort of decision. Nonetheless it has become clear that time and again it is mental health services who end up suffering, seemingly at the bottom of the pile and not receiving their fair share of funding in practice. The point was reinforced in the autumn of 2016 when Luciana Berger MP obtained freedom of information data which showed that Clinical Commissioning Groups were reducing their mental health spending year on year.
One means of alleviating this situation, which the BPC and a few other organisations have called for since before the most recent general election, is to ring-fence the mental health money allocated to the Clinical Commissioning Groups so that it cannot be used for other ends. The thinking around this is if money has been committed to mental health, and the Government is truly committed to parity of esteem between mental health and physical health (which it reiterates in this budget) then surely the relevant money should be secured for mental health. We succeeded in persuading the Labour Party and Green Party to commit to ring-fencing the mental health budget in their election manifestos and the Labour Party has recently stepped up a campaign to ring-fence the budget.
Although the Autumn Budget makes no countenance for ring-fencing of the mental health budget, there may in fact be a sliver lining for mental health services. The Budget has committed more money to the NHS between now and 2020 including £2.8 billion, which could go some way to help Clinical Commissioning Groups deal with the challenges they so often have to deal with. Could this mean less borrowing from money allocated to mental health services? Only time will tell.
Other than this extra £2.8 billion, the budget says extremely little on mental health. Money will be given to community support services for victims of the Grenfell fire, including to counselling services, and the Government will release a Green Paper in December on its plans to support children’s mental health services (CAMHS). This latter point at least acknowledges that the Government plans to do something to alleviate the difficult experience so many CAMHS are facing at present.
In the end, this budget was dominated by Brexit and forecasts of slowing growth. There is no escaping the fact that – for the time being at least – everything else is of secondary consideration to this Government.
Peter Hudson, BPC Policy and Public Affairs Officer