The prime minister is to pump £1bn into the fight against mental illness as part of the biggest shake-up for three decades
The NHS will be thrust to the centre of the general election campaign today when Theresa May vows to tear up Britain’s “flawed” mental health system and put first aiders in every school to fight mental illness. In an attempt to show that the election will be about more than Brexit, the prime minister will vow to pump £1bn into mental health provision by 2020 to pay for 10,000 new staff and train an extra 1,500 mental health professionals every year.
The move comes as senior Conservatives are engaged in a fierce debate about their manifesto, with May’s closest aides arguing that she needs to secure a mandate on June 8 for sweeping social reforms. In the biggest shake-up in mental health law for three decades, the prime minister will vow to:
• Scrap the 1983 Mental Health Act in order to treat more people in the community and end the discrimination that leads to a higher proportion of black people being detained in police cells
• Stop workplace discrimination against people with mental health problems, scrapping the rule that they are protected only if they have a condition lasting 12 months or more, ill suited to those with depression that comes and goes
• Commit to funding the Samaritans’ emergency hotline until at least 2022
• Insist that every primary and secondary school in England and Wales and large businesses have mental health first-aid experts.
More than 63,000 people were detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 in 2014-15, an increase of 43% compared to 2005-6. Black people who spend time in hospital for mental illness are 50% more likely to be detained in police cells when they suffer a setback.
May’s intervention comes after Prince Harry and Prince William joined forces with celebrities such as Lady Gaga to put public awareness of mental health high on the agenda.
The prime minister told The Sunday Times: “Every single person in Britain today, no matter who they are or where they live, will have a friend or loved one affected by mental ill-health. For too long, people with mental health problems have suffered unacceptable stigma and the injustice of finding that, when they need care, there isn’t enough help at hand. Those receiving treatment have found themselves without the choices and care that they might expect if they had a physical ailment. That’s wrong, and I am determined to put it right.”
There are some Tories who want the controversial stuff cut out so we concentrate on a simple retail offer for voters
The issue has been a focus of May’s domestic agenda since she spoke about the importance of mental health in her first speech as prime minister on the steps of Downing Street in July. Signalling that she wants to make mental health a legislative priority as early as the Queen’s speech, May said: “Our understanding of mental illness has changed and our laws need to change too. Thirty years after it was first introduced, I will replace in its entirety the flawed Mental Health Act, which too often leads to detention, disproportionate effects and the forced treatment of vulnerable people.”
May also said she wanted to “pay tribute” to The Sunday Times for “campaigning on mental health” issues in the young. “Greater public awareness is vital to breaking down stigma, and ultimately to ensuring that everyone with a mental health problem gets the care and support they need,” she said.
The NHS is traditionally seen as a Labour strong suit but polls suggest that May is more trusted on the issue than Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said in an interview that May’s move proved that she wanted to set out a broad vision for Brexit Britain and make the NHS a Tory issue. “Theresa May is seeking a mandate for fundamental reforms of the way the country works to deal with some of our deep-seated problems,” he said.
Hunt argued that spotting mental health problems in the young and improving provision would also ease pressure on the rest of the health service. “If you can get to these problems early, and nip them in the bud, you can stop them becoming a long-term drain on the NHS but you can also avoid the human agony that many families are currently going through,” he said.
“People who have mental health conditions end up costing the NHS a lot more for their physical health conditions as well because the two are completely interlinked,” he said. “You don’t just reduce pressure on mental health services by dealing with problems earlier, you also relieve pressure on the rest of the NHS, including A&E departments, which is where people can end up in a crisis.”
Ministers will come under pressure to go further and do more to end the care funding crisis. The Sunday Times can reveal that the Liberal Democrats will fight the general election on a pledge to introduce the proposals in the Dilnot report for a cap on costs to end the scandal of people selling their homes to pay for care. Under their plan, people would contribute up to £73,000 towards their care, after which the state would pick up the tab.
At the moment people have to pay for almost all their residential care costs if they have more than £23,250 in savings or assets. The Tories previously kicked the plans for reform into the long grass until at least 2020.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said: “It is time for Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond to face up to the massive crisis in social care that they have created, reverse plans for further damaging cuts and fund social care as the public expect and older people need. The Conservatives have left more than a million older people without the social care they need and many more are having to sell their homes to pay for care. This government’s catastrophic neglect of social care is only just starting to make itself felt, but unless something changes things will only get worse.”
The Conservatives are understood to be planning to implement a version of Dilnot, introducing the care cost cap a year early in 2019 but with a higher contributions limit of £100,000 or more.
Hunt refused to discuss Tory plans for care but pointed to comments by May “about the urgent need for fundamental reform of social care so that we have a sustainable long-term solution”.
The Tories are also expected to include in their manifesto plans to guarantee GP appointments within 48 hours. The Sunday Times revealed last weekend that May’s team were also looking at tax breaks to encourage people to save for their own care.
Senior Tories say there is tension over the manifesto between Nick Timothy, May’s chief of staff, and allies of campaign strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, who believe expensive commitments should be kept to a minimum. Greg Clark, the business secretary, and John Godfrey, head of the Downing Street policy unit, are said to be trying to water down plans for an energy cap so that firms are banned from offering tariffs that are 20% more than their cheapest deals, rather than imposing a cash limit on bills.
Plans for a wealth tax on expensive properties could be limited to foreign owners, sparing British taxpayers, or those whose properties are empty. Radical options still being examined include a “use it or lose it” provision for developers who sit on brownfield land, where planning permission has been granted.
A senior Tory said: “Nick wants to see some big emblematic policies which show that we are on the side of ordinary people but there are some who want the controversial stuff cut out so we concentrate on a simple retail offer for voters.”