One of the roles of an Opposition Member of Parliament is to hold Government ministers to account. We do this on behalf of the people who send us to Parliament, to secure justice and fairness, and to try to improve the way our country works. One of the mechanisms to do this is to ask written Parliamentary Questions (‘PQs’) to ministers. These are designed to extract information from within the corridors of power, and make it available for all. As an MP, I have asked hundreds of PQs on everything from climate change to the NHS.
When Jeremy Corbyn appointed me as Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health last year, I was determined to hold ministers to account, across all the departments which have an impact on our mental health. That could be communities, welfare, education, health or business: so many areas affect our mental health. So I started to quiz ministers on various aspects of their policy.
What happened next was frustrating, and at times shocking. Time after time, the answer to perfectly reasonable questions was “this information is not collected centrally” or “this information is not held by the department” or some variant of “we simply haven’t a clue”.
When I asked what proportion of people referred to consultant-led mental health specialists were seen within the target time of 18 weeks; how many mental health social workers there are; how many children have died in psychiatric in-patient units; how many people diagnosed with a mental health condition have received a custodial sentence; what proportion of anorexia nervosa patients die prematurely or take their own lives; how many GPs practices have a mental health specialist; how many perinatal mental health specialists there are; how many people receiving the Independent Living Fund have a diagnosed mental health condition; how many doctors and nurses are signed off work due to stress and other mental illness each year: the answer was the same. “We don’t know”. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
This raises some serious concerns. One is around the collection of data on mental health, which across a huge range of areas is simply not being done. Despite Jeremy Hunt professing a “transparency revolution” across the NHS, accountability has been steadily stripped away. Regional public health observatories, for example, which under Labour provided vital information and analysis on public health have been dismantled. And since the Government abolished the annual survey of investment in mental health services, we have no way of knowing how much is spent on mental health each year. We need to transform the way we collect the facts in order to figure out what is going on.
Another, bigger, issue is the inability of ministers to lead a mental health service without knowing what is happening in many areas. How can Government ministers and their officials plan and deliver effective mental health services, if there are great black holes in their knowledge?
Since the start of April, I have been tweeting one question every day that I have asked, but to which I have not got an answer. I will continue to share one a day until the end of the month, to highlight the scope and diversity of the questions asked, and the gaps in government knowledge. As I’ve brought this to the public’s attention, the campaign has been met with a huge response. In the first ten days, the infographics have reached over 1.4 million through Facebook and Twitter. There is a mounting sense of incredulity and anger. People are concerned that the absence of information on mental health reflects an absence of priority and focus. It suggests that we are a long way from the “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health that ministers have promised.
I will keep asking questions, and I will keep holding ministers to account. Proper information about what is actually happening on the ground is essential if the Government is to deliver the transformation that we need in our nation’s response to mental health.
Luciana Berger MP is the Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health