Head of scrapped mental health agency questions its abolition

The government's decision to scrap its lead mental health agency without creating an equivalent body has been questioned by the organisation's outgoing director, Ian McPherson (pictured)

The government’s decision to scrap its lead mental health agency without creating an equivalent body has been criticised by the organisation’s outgoing director.

The £6m-a-year National Mental Health Development Unit, which has helped implement mental health policy since April 2009, closes on 31 March with no successor body.

NMHDU director Ian McPherson said he recognised the financial constraints the government was under, but warned there were risks without a strategic development body providing thought on how to ensure quality and best value in services at a time when resources are scarce.

Transitional arrangements have been put in place with some of its work falling back into the Department of Health, some to new health and well-being boards that are being set up to co-ordinate local health and social care commissioning, and some to the Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health. This is a coalition of sector bodies, including the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, that will provide guidance on commissioning.

However, McPherson said there was a need for a co-ordinating body.

“There’s a risk that everybody thinks that somebody else should be doing it,” he warned. “I personally think it may be something that a few years down the line somebody comes back to and says ‘I wonder if we need something to coordinate’.”

However, McPherson acknowledged that such cuts were happening across government. “If we looked at it from a purely mental health perspective we might think it short-sighted, but we have to recognise the same thing is happening across many other agencies.”

The unit’s brief was to put national policy into practice and to disseminate good practice in seven key programme areas, while providing specialist expertise and advice to government departments and policy-makers.

Key examples of its work include its public mental health and well-being programme, which has supported the NHS and local authorities to improve the mental well-being of their populations, and the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme to widen access to therapy.

This is at the heart of the coalition’s mental health strategy, published in March, though the team behind IAPT has been cut back radically.

Its last major piece of work, with the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network, was on personal health budgets.

It found that more than half of mental health social workers and other professionals were unconvinced users would benefit from rolling them out.

Mental Health Network director Steve Shrubb said the loss of the NMHDU would “leave a huge hole”.

“It doesn’t mean it doesn’t provide some opportunities to think about how policy implementation could be delivered differently, but it has been an important component of delivering the significant changes that have been delivered in mental health over the past few years,” he added.

A DH spokesperson said: “We are clear that at a time when the NHS budget is under pressure, we need to find efficiencies so that we can invest in frontline services. We are working with the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Psychiatrists to produce robust guidance for commissioners on mental health services. so they have the expertise to commission good mental health services. A central policy team within the Department of Health will continue to oversee roll-out of our talking therapies programme.”

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