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NHS Mental Health Patients in Private Hospitals

Volume 821: debated on Thursday 28 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to address the reported £2 billion per year the NHS is paying to private hospitals to take on its mental health patients as a result of bed shortages.

Non-NHS providers have always played a role in delivering NHS services for patients since the founding of the NHS. The CQC regulates both NHS and independent providers to deliver care to the highest quality. The Government and the NHS have an ambitious transformation programme to increase investment in community mental health services and to introduce new models of care so that more people are cared for in their communities, reducing reliance on inappropriate in-patient admissions.

I thank the Minister. I beg the indulgence of the House to record that this is my last outing as opposition health spokesperson—although I shall be taking up other Front-Bench duties so your Lordships have not escaped completely. I wish to record a huge thank you to colleagues across the House with whom I have worked over many years; my especial thanks to the small but perfectly-formed Labour health team, my noble friends Lady Wheeler and Lady Merron and indeed the Back-Benchers; and my thanks to the many Ministers whose well-being I may not always have enhanced over the years.

On this Question, the issue is not whether it is a good use of NHS funding to spend £2 billion a year on privately provided mental health beds. It is about whether, given the parity of esteem for mental health recently reinforced in the brand new Health and Care Act, the Government have a plan to invest in reversing the decline of mental health beds and increasing the number of NHS mental health beds available at community level, as the Minister mentioned, where they are needed, and over what period.

I begin, if noble Lords will allow me, by paying tribute to the noble Baroness for her doughty and robust opposition, but also for the advice when I was a new Minister suddenly thrown in at the deep end. It was very comforting to have one of the Opposition help me and give advice—I make no comments about the quality of the advice but I was incredibly grateful. I also pay tribute, to requote her words, to the perfectly formed shadow team. I thank them very much for all their holding us to account.

On the issue, when I was looking at the future of mental health, one thing we have to look at its granularity. There are different types of mental health; someone suffering from eating disorders, for example, will have a very different need from someone who is schizophrenic. It is really important that we do not just assume that everyone needs to be in a bed. Where appropriate, we should move people out to the community but make sure that they are supported there, not just kicked out the door and left to fend for themselves. We are looking at a massive programme of investment and at how we can have more targeted interventions for those suffering from different mental health issues.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the recent chair of a major HEE review, recommending ways to improve and deliver the mental health nursing workforce, which was released on 20 April. Can the Minister really drill down on the extent to which the new ILATs will be accountable for both local provision of mental health in-patient beds—services are not enough and some people need admission and care in hospital—and the consideration of workforce needs, not only locally but for the services they purchase in the independent and not-for-profit sector?

The noble Baroness makes an important point about how we ensure that those who require services in their community receive them, while ensuring that we have the appropriate workforce. She will know that throughout debate on the Health and Care Bill, we have discussed the fact that Health Education England, as well as NHS England, is developing workforce strategies—as are local trusts at their level, which know their needs and requirements at the same time. In terms of the specific question, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on her outstanding contribution in her health Front-Bench role. From these Benches, it is always a pleasure to work with her and we look forward to continuing with her in her new role. Yesterday, the CQC served the Norfolk and Suffolk mental health trust with an improvement notice, reporting that staffing levels remain unsafe, waiting lists were long and, on average, 49 people per month died within six months of contact with that trust. There are staff shortages across NHS mental health services, so can the Minister say what the Government will do to ensure that there are enough qualified mental health professionals in the NHS?

I thank the noble Baroness for the question and for repeating the fact that you can find problems in the independent sector and in NHS providers. What is really important is that we are looking at the HEE workforce plan as well as the NHS workforce plan, while working with trusts at the local level and other providers of care to ensure that we have the most appropriate staff levels to meet local conditions.

My Lords, if the £2 billion which the NHS is paying to the private sector is enabling vulnerable mental health patients to get high-quality care, is this not to be welcomed as it takes pressure off the NHS?

I should remind noble Lords that the noble Baroness said that she was not against private provision out of principle. Private provision can be very helpful and has always worked with the NHS, ever since it was founded. If we think about responders—for example, the impact of lockdown on many people—we have seen an increase in mental health needs. What do you do to increase the provision of mental health services? Do you wait for a new NHS hospital to be built? No—if there is a private provider out there, or an independent provider that can provide those services, you engage them. That is why the NHS and the independent sector, working together, is a really important partnership.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the Migration Advisory Committee’s report, which pointed out what we all know: poor pay is driving social care workers, including mental health workers, out of the service and into the private sector? For example, they are losing more through inflation than they can keep up with and their pay certainly runs behind private sector pay. I understand that a social care worker can earn more in an Amazon distribution centre than they can in the social care sector. Can the Minister bring to the notice of the Treasury the damage that this policy is doing?

The noble Lord clearly discusses an important point: we have to have the appropriate workforce. The Government have begun a register of social care to work out who is in the workforce, what qualifications they have and what improvements we have to make to social care. We should also remember that social care providers are a mixture of private homes and state provision. At the same time, we have to make sure that we have the right people, locally trained. For example, the visa system encourages people to come and work in our social care system as well.

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my declared interests. In view of recent press reports about a young patient who absconded from a private sector mental health unit and subsequently died, and the subsequent coroner’s inquest findings, is the Minister able to confirm that the Department of Health and Social Care will be able to provide guidance on the safety and security arrangements that should attend outside areas at mental health units and subsequently might be used as the basis for CQC inspection?

Can I begin by—if my information is correct—wishing the noble Lord a happy birthday? If it is not his birthday, I have made a fool of myself. I am sure all the House joins me.

Wherever there is a tragedy, we have to learn the lessons. We spoke about this during the Bill, for example with HSSIB and making sure we have a safe space to understand what went wrong and ensure it does not happen again. We have to make sure that, as we move towards different models of care for people suffering from mental health conditions, it is appropriate to their condition. Not all mental health conditions are the same. Some will need in-patient provision and others will need care in the community, but we should make sure they are actually supported in the community.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have a daughter currently in a private eating disorder facility out-of-area, which the NHS is paying for—for which I am extremely grateful. Given the increasing numbers of people suffering from eating disorders, both children and young people and adults, what hope can the Minister give families like mine that in future their young people and family members will not be sent far away, when we want to see them? They might be in hospital for four, six or nine months at a time. What hope can the Minister give people that—yes, there are brilliant community services for eating disorders and we need more of them—we will open up more beds in local areas to help families and sufferers of these appalling diseases?

I thank the noble Baroness for sharing her very personal story. It is important that we understand it is more than stats and figures, which are provided to me by the department. In the community, we understand it is important to make sure that provision is as close to the patient and family as possible. We have to remember that care is not just for the patient; it impacts friends, family and others. We are looking at ways to ensure that care is delivered close to families and those suffering from these conditions.