RCPsych at the party conferences: making mental health a key issue
27 October, 2023
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been attending conferences for the main political parties in England. Each conference - Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and the Labour Party - provided an opportunity to talk to senior politicians, experts and like-minded stakeholders about some of the key issues facing mental health services.
First, I was in Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrat Conference. I was able to speak with their Spokesperson for Health, Daisy Cooper MP, and asked her about how the Liberal Democrats would prioritise mental health. I also had the opportunity to meet with Baroness Tyler, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Mental Health, to discuss engaging with the Party leading into the next election. Improving health and the NHS was one of the key themes of the Conference and it was excellent to hear Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Party, reference a call for parity between physical health and mental health, in his speech.
After a few days back at the day job, I was off to Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference. During the Conference I was on the panel for a fringe event entitled Inequalities in mental healthcare: how can we ensure good outcomes for all? The Social Market Foundation had kindly asked me to speak about this at both the Conservative and Labour Conferences. During the event, there was an interesting and lively discussion on discrepancies in mental healthcare and the need to focus on social determinants for health. The panel comprised a range of experts, including Professor Dawn Edge, Professor of Mental Health and inclusivity at the University of Manchester, who specialises in systemic interventions aimed at reducing mental health inequality. Also on the panel was Chair of the APPG on Mental Health, Dean Russell MP.
During my time in Manchester, I also met with the House of Lords, Health and Social Care spokesperson, Lord Markham. He comes from industry, and we spoke about issues around productivity and how to support our workforce. I was also able to speak with a number of Ministers including the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay. I was particularly pleased that following our conversation he placed mental health as part of the agenda at all his subsequent Fringe events. Conference was very eventful, we attended discussions on the criminal justice system, policing and mental health and on support for the NHS workforce. It was not lost on me that this was all against a backdrop of junior doctors’ and consultants’ strike action, sitting alongside the radiographers – and the train drivers!
On the final day Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, gave his first speech to Conference as leader of the Party. Though up until that point other issues had seemed to overshadow the conference, it was good to hear him outline plans for a New Zealand-style smoking ban. We know smoking can have a huge impact on health and it is a leading cause in the gap in life expectancy between people with severe mental illness and those without.
Last but not least, I was in Liverpool for the Labour Party Conference. Health, specifically prevention, seemed to dominate the conference, with most fringe events on the topic having standing room only. Shadow Health Minister, Wes Streeting MP, spoke with conviction on his vision of the future of the NHS and the health service in England. I’m very pleased that mental health was a key part of these discussions and following my questions, it was clear that he takes seriously the mental health of patients but also that of healthcare staff. I had the opportunity to talk to more stakeholders and Parliamentarians, including other key members of Labour’s Health Team such as Preet Kaur Gill, Shadow Minister for Primary Care and Public Health. We discussed a range of issues from early years’ mental health interventions, to helping people with mental illness back into work.
I spoke again at the Social Market Foundation event on Inequalities in Mental Healthcare. At this session, I spoke alongside the newly appointed Shadow Minister for Women’s Health and Mental Health, Abena Oppong-Asare MP. It was a positive meeting, which you can watch again online. We discussed how we can work together to improve services. Sir Keir Starmer MP spoke towards the end of the conference, during which it was promising to hear him committing to guaranteeing mental health treatment for those who need it.
At all the conferences it was heartening to hear people speak about the importance of mental healthcare. With an election likely to be scheduled in the next year, I want to make sure that these productive discussions continue and that the main parties are making genuine commitments to improve services.
We are already building on our work from the conferences to make sure we are engaging with all the parties as they begin preparations for the manifestos.
You will hear more on our own Manifesto in the coming weeks.