PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on mental health problems

by Stephen Tall on July 2, 2008

At this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg highlighted a serious issue paid scant attention in society – the lengthy waiting lists facing millions of NHS patients with mental health problems. No surprises that Gordon Brown side-stepped the question (it’s what he does), though it sparked a quick-fire response from Nick: “[The Prime Minister] is doing it again: he is confusing a list with an answer, and a review with action.” Nick has well and truly found his feet in the bear-pit of PMQs.

But what of David Cameron? Last week I noted that he seemed a little out of sorts. Today, again, many have noted his more subdued performance, and even given Mr Brown a ‘points win’ (pretty much by default, for Gordon isn’t a patch on Tony). Some suggest it’s a deliberate strategy; that Mr Cameron daren’t try ‘too hard’ lest the force of his rhetoric brings the Prime Minister to his knees – and that the Tories want to keep Mr Brown in place. I don’t buy the explanation for a moment.

What I hope might be more accurate is that Mr Cameron is deliberately moderating his performance, attempting to tone down the shrill posturing and cheap jibes which have all too often marred his superior debating skills: he’s trying hard not to seem as if he’s trying too hard. As I say, I genuinely hope that’s the reason; that the Tory leader is demonstrating a little more maturity to reflect his current standing as PM-in-waiting. PMQs might be marginally less boorish if so.

Anyway you can judge for yourselves below, via Hansard:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): May I add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Lance Corporal James Johnson and Warrant Officer Dan Shirley, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan this week?
The Prime Minister this week published yet another Government review of the national health service, but what does it say about him and his Government that, after 11 years, one quarter of all British people now face mental health problems; that, every single day, more than 1,700 children are prescribed anti-depression drugs; and that millions of mental health patients—some of the most vulnerable people in the NHS—still have to wait three years to get help? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we now have a two-tier health system in which millions of mental health patients are being left behind?

The Prime Minister: Let me just say that we have increased spending on mental health by 31 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years. There are now 60 per cent. more consultant psychiatrists working in the national health service, and there are 20 per cent. more mental health nurses. That is possible only because of the investment that we have made in the national health service, which is far beyond what any other party offered or promised at any election, and that is why there are 80,000 more nurses, that is why we are doing 1 million operations, and that is why today, this party, and I believe the whole House, should be proud of 60 years of success in the national health service. I am proud that a Labour Government created it, and I hope that it will have the support of all parties in this House.

Mr. Clegg: The right hon. Gentleman is doing it again: he is confusing a list with an answer, and a review with action. There is a mental health crisis in this country today. Even the new president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists himself said this week that our mental health wards are “unacceptable, uninhabitable, and dangerous.” There is no excuse for the Prime Minister’s complacency. He once again relies on a promise made in a review, but when will he act to introduce a maximum waiting time and equal rights for all mental health patients?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman forgets that one of the purposes of our policy is that fewer people are in hospital and more care is provided in the community, but I can tell him that real investment in adult mental health places has increased by £1.2 billion, that we spent more than £5.1 billion on adult mental health services last year, compared with only £3 billion in 2001, and that capital spending on mental health hospitals and on hospital accommodation has been rising. Yes, we want to do more, but we can do more only if we invest more in the national health service as a whole. That is our commitment; it is not clear whether it is the commitment of all parties in this House.