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Battersea Funfair Disaster: Child Trauma Support Services

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Miss Dines.)

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Battersea funfair disaster. I want to start by remembering the victims, their families, and the survivors. I also want to pay tribute to and thank two of the survivors, Hilary Wynter and Liz Haigh-Reeve, for their tireless campaigning to have the tragedy recognised and remembered.

The Big Dipper rollercoaster was the main attraction of the Battersea Park funfair which opened as part of the festival of Britain. Tragically, on 30 May 1972, a carriage of the rollercoaster broke loose and plummeted backwards through a barrier killing five children—Alison Comerford, Thomas Harmer, Shirley Nash, Debora Robertson and David Sait—and leaving 13 injured. The disaster is one of the deadliest rollercoaster crashes in history. However, it has largely been forgotten and there has been no justice for the victims, their families and the survivors.

To mark the anniversary of the disaster, I attended a special memorial ceremony together with families and survivors in Battersea Park where a plaque was unveiled and a tree was planted. That is the first step to creating a new legacy and a permanent memorial.

There is another silent tragedy associated with the incident, on which I will focus the rest of my speech. It is something that I am determined to change. Survivors have spoken about the devastating impact that childhood mental trauma has had on their lives. As one told me,

“bones are mended, physical injuries fixed, but the dreadful damage to our mental health goes untreated.”

Damage from trauma is not necessarily skin deep: some wounds penetrate through to our minds, leaving lasting damage that can be just as debilitating. Although the funfair and the big dipper are long gone, some of the survivors of the disaster still struggle to go to Battersea Park, and have been unable to shake off their horrific memories of that incident. I am sure many survivors of other tragedies, such as Hillsborough, the Manchester Arena terrorist attack and the Grenfell Tower fire, have been through similar experiences.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate on childhood trauma support services. I would mention helpfully to her, and probably to the Minister as well, that we in Northern Ireland have faced 30 years of a terrorism campaign during which many young children, women and men have lost their lives. Such trauma can last way beyond the time that it happened. Does the hon. Lady agree that some discussions with the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland might be helpful when it comes to devising a policy and a strategy to address trauma and child mental issues, which I know she wishes to see?

The hon. Gentleman is right: we can all learn, and it would be useful for the Minister to say whether she would like to meet Ministers in Northern Ireland to look at what works well.

Childhood trauma can have a lifelong effect, and can have lasting consequences for a child or young person’s development, including psychological, behavioural and emotional problems. Those problems can occur into and throughout adulthood, presenting related challenges in many aspects of that person’s life. According to the UK Trauma Council, childhood trauma refers to the ways in which some events and experiences are so extreme that they overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. Many different experiences can lead to such trauma: for example, physical or sexual abuse can be traumatic for children. One-time events like the tragedies I have mentioned can take a psychological toll on children as well. Ongoing stress such as the effects of the pandemic can also be traumatic for a child, even if it just feels like everyday life to an adult.

We know that the pandemic has had a huge negative impact on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The Children’s Commissioner’s Big Ask survey found that one in five children was not happy with their mental health, and that figure rose to two in five for some groups. Childhood trauma does not have to involve experiences that are directly related to the child: for instance, watching a loved one endure major issues can be extremely traumatic, as has been highlighted by the impact of the cost of living crisis on children’s mental health. According to the Childhood Trust’s latest report, 47% of children surveyed felt stressed, 21% of parents said that their children smiled less, and most concerningly, 9% of parents claimed that their children had started self-harming. The results of that report should worry us all, as all those types of trauma will affect children’s development and wellbeing.

The Government need to invest in mental health services to ensure that children who experience trauma today do not face the same painful ordeal that survivors of the Battersea funfair disaster have gone through over the past 50 years. Spending on children’s mental health remains behind investment in adult mental health services. It is worrying that children and young people’s mental health services are among the most under-resourced and that the quality of care varies between different parts of the country. A BBC freedom of information request revealed that 20% of children are waiting more than 12 weeks to be seen for mental health support. That is why I was pleased to secure this debate on better provisions for children’s mental health services and childhood trauma.

The Government need to correct the historical underinvestment in children and young people’s mental health and the postcode lottery of services and support provision. To do that, they must create a comprehensive child mental health strategy, and childhood trauma services must be prioritised as part of that. The UK Trauma Council has called for the Government to invest in the development and delivery of specialist trauma provision so that children and young people have access to the support that they need. It also called on the Government to equip all professionals who work with children and young people with the skills and capacity to support those who have experienced trauma.

Labour has already set out its plan on tackling the mental health crisis, which includes giving adequate funding to mental health services. We have also committed to radically expanding the mental health workforce, including, crucially, investment in children’s mental health that includes putting open-access mental health hubs for children and young people in every community and ensuring that a full-time mental health professional is in every secondary school and a part-time professional is in every primary school.

Labour’s focus on early intervention is so important, because it can prevent the ongoing effects of trauma into adulthood. It would ensure that children are properly supported and resolve problems before they escalate. I will therefore ask the Minister about the Government’s plan for children’s mental health services and, specifically, childhood trauma care. When will her Government introduce a comprehensive child mental health strategy that includes prioritising trauma and investment in the development and delivery of evidence-based trauma service provision? How are they ensuring that children’s mental health services are a high priority in the NHS? That includes increased investment.

The Government have made £139 million available to support children and young people’s mental health in the community, but we need to see more investment. How are the Government working with professionals in contact points including in schools and the third sector so that children can access support when problems emerge?

Much work also needs be done to ensure that every child and young person gets the support that they need for their mental health and wellbeing. We need to step up as a society and be more ambitious in our call for better support for children and young people’s mental health. More funding and resources will be an investment in our children’s future. It is time for the Government to act and listen to the voices of children and young people, especially those suffering from trauma. If we do not act now, when will we?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing the debate. I must admit that I was not aware of the tragic events that unfolded 50 years ago, on 30 May 1972, and I am sure that others were not, either, so it is fantastic that she secured the debate to remind us all. However, I discussed it with my husband when I got home last night. At the time, he was a 10-year-old boy growing up in London. He was very much aware of what happened and he vividly remembers it. What should have been a happy day in Battersea Park, on the bank of the River Thames, resulted in five children losing their lives and a further 13 being injured, and it shocked many more. I very much hope that the survivors’ campaign for a permanent memorial in Battersea Park is ultimately successful, so that that terrible event is never forgotten—maybe that is the plaque the hon. Lady referred to, or maybe there is something else that they are still campaigning for.

Undoubtedly, many affected by the Battersea funfair disaster will have suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, but let us not forget that PTSD was not even added to the International Classification of Diseases until the ’80s, and guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was not published until 2005. Events have taught us that people affected by any traumatic incident must be able to access timely mental health support when and if needed, but I am not sure there was the same understanding all those years ago.

Luckily, PTSD can be successfully treated even when it develops many years after a traumatic event. The treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event. The hon. Lady reports that survivors of the tragedy remain concerned that mental health support for children who have suffered trauma has not changed much since 1972. I too would be very concerned if that was the case, but I must respectfully disagree with that assessment.

If a child has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, it is quite natural for them to be stressed, upset or frightened. That should not usually last beyond four weeks, but if it does, it may indicate post-traumatic stress disorder and it is then important to seek help via their GP. There are now some really effective treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy, for children and young people who are experiencing the effects of trauma.

To respond to the hon. Lady’s specific question, NHS England and NHS Improvement have issued guidance on responding to the needs of people affected by incidents and emergencies, which stresses that plans for incidents and emergencies must provide psychosocial and mental health care for people affected, since early intervention for people at risk of developing mental health problems may reduce their severity and chronicity and, ultimately, related costs.

In general, psychological support can be accessed four to six weeks after the event for those who are exhibiting signs of needing professional help, as per NICE guidelines. Those who require urgent support may be referred to services sooner than that, and it is important to ensure that messaging about support services is appropriate. Not all people need psychological support, and many recover over the course of time without specific interventions, but it is still important that such people continue to look after their health and wellbeing after a traumatic incident. That includes getting enough rest, eating well, returning to their routine and staying connected with others.

I just want to ask about the support that is available via NHS England and ensuring that it is available, as the Minister says, within a four to six week period. Can she assure me that that is actually happening? Is there any evidence base to ensure that children who experience trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder are getting that support in a timely fashion?

Yes, and of course we always try to ensure that, as the targets we put in are worked throughout the system, those targets are met. That is why we measure those things. Maybe it would be helpful to the hon. Lady if I gave some recent examples. In the wake of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, which sadly affected many children and young people, the Greater Manchester Resilience Hub was set up to provide a central point for mental health advice for those directly affected, including children and emergency responders. The hub worked with other agencies to develop packages of care.

In response to the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, more than £10 million has been spent on treating the mental health of those affected. In the year after the fire, 2,674 adults and 463 children were screened for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the St Charles Centre for Health and Wellbeing was opened up so that those affected could be treated in dedicated therapy suites. I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that we have seen a dramatic change in both attitudes towards mental health since the days of the Battersea disaster, and the NHS services available to support people with their mental health.

I am very encouraged by what the Minister has just said. In my intervention on the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) I suggested some contact with the authorities in Northern Ireland, which unfortunately have a long 30 years’ experience of trauma, especially among children. Has that happened?

I have not met my counterpart in Northern Ireland but, having heard the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I sent a WhatsApp message to request that a meeting be set up, because it is probably long overdue. We can learn a lot from each other, and I am always keen to learn from anyone I can.

Over the past 50 years, we have seen the transformation of NHS mental health services for children and young people. From the passing of the Mental Health Act 1983 and the establishment of mental health trusts to more recent developments including the Time to Change campaign, which between 2007 and 2021 helped to improve the attitudes and behaviours of some 5.4 million people towards those living with mental health problems, these are all important steps along the way towards destigmatising mental health.

The publication of the five-year forward view for mental health in 2016 made the case for transforming mental healthcare in England. The implementation of the “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision” Green Paper from December 2017 has seen the introduction of senior mental health leads and mental health support teams in schools and colleges. We regularly talk about that programme, and I am sure it will make a massive difference to young people, particularly those affected by the pandemic. The 2019 NHS long-term plan commits to expanding and transforming mental health services in England so that an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded specialist mental health treatment by 2023-24.

We are continuing to build up those services and the staff, as in some cases demand outstrips supply. As part of this work, we have all-age 24/7 urgent mental health helplines in all areas of England so that people experiencing a mental health crisis, or those worried about someone experiencing such a crisis, can speak to a trained professional. The helplines were established during the pandemic, so they are a relatively new addition to the landscape, but I am sure they are very welcome because many people have sought these services.

We are also accelerating the coverage of mental health support teams in schools and colleges from the 287 currently in place to over 500, covering around 35% of pupils by 2023-24. There are currently 16 mental health support teams operating in or planned for south-west London, so they have already started to roll out.

Our hard-working NHS community mental health services treated over 420,000 children and young people in 2020-21, an increase of around 95,000 on the previous year, so we can see there has been a massive increase in demand for these services, which is why we are working very hard to try to build up the mental health workforce.

Although none of us wishes to see a repeat of the events in Battersea Park and the many things that have happened since, not only in mental health but in safety, I assure hon. Members that the NHS will always be there to support the survivors of such tragedies. However, it is important that we never forget. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea for securing this debate and for making us all aware of something that happened. This issue is important to her constituents, and this debate will ensure that we all remember the tragedy and learn from the events of that day.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.