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Child Pornography

7.21 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): The petition that I am presenting was produced by three mothers in the town of Kimberley and signed by 850 residents in and around my constituency. They and I believe that downloading child pornography from the internet is effectively to commission it and should be punished accordingly. The petition states:




To lie upon the Table.

22 Mar 2005 : Column 857

Saneline Funding

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Vernon Coaker.]

7.22 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great concern. I say that both as a constituency Member of Parliament and because of its wider implications for all those affected by mental health problems. I refer to the possible closure of the helpline, Saneline, run by the mental health charity, SANE.

Saneline is the United Kingdom's largest specialist mental health helpline and the only one of its scale and scope in the mental health field. Sadly, it is under threat because of the failure of the Department of Health to pay moneys due in the current financial year, the second year of a two-year contract with SANE to provide the Saneline service, and also because of the Department's decision not to renew dedicated funding for the helpline from April 2005.

The failure of the Department to make payment on the contract, 11 months into it and with no explanation given, caused SANE to draw heavily on its reserves, which inflicted cumulative damage while it struggled to fulfil the contract with no certainty of payment. In addition, the Department announced on 21 December that no further funds would be available for Saneline. As a result, SANE announced the closure of the Saneline call centres in Macclesfield and Bristol—I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) is in his place—from 31 March, with the loss of 13 staff and 125 highly trained volunteers.

The London helproom remains under threat. As the Minister of State will be aware, I have previously drawn attention to the situation in early-day motion 533, and aired the matter alongside Saneline's founder—the irrepressible Mrs. Marjorie Wallace, whom I have known well for many years and for whom I personally have a great deal of respect—on ITV Granada's "Sunday Supplement" programme on 23 January this year.

Saneline was the first national mental health helpline and the only such helpline operating from noon to 2 am every day of the year. Set up in London in 1992, it later opened helprooms in Macclesfield and Bristol to respond to rising demand for the service. I was proud to be present at the opening of the Macclesfield helproom in January 1996. Last year, Saneline received more than 425,000 calls, double the number in the previous year, and, interestingly, it received 12,000 calls last week. Saneline offers emotional support, crisis care and detailed information to anyone experiencing mental health problems, families, carers and friends, health professionals and other front-line workers such as the police, and ordinary members of the public. It is genuinely open to everyone.

Saneline has the biggest mental health database in the UK, with constantly updated information on treatments, therapies and mental health law, and more than 18,000 entries on local and national services. It carries out social and psychological research, drawing on the experiences of Saneline callers, publishing papers
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and influencing policy and debate. It also runs a caller care service unique in its scale, which provides support to callers at times of crisis or further need and operates during office hours and at evenings, nights and weekends. Some 30 per cent of the callers to whom Saneline responds are referred by health services and other organisations, and, interestingly, one in 10 of those being treated by mental health services have Saneline written into their care plan.

Some 170,000 people attend accident and emergency departments each year because they have self-harmed. Saneline can help to prevent some of that by enabling those who fear they might harm themselves to ring before they do so. This not only saves pain and distress to the individual, but saves the Government the costs of the visits that would otherwise be made to accident and emergency departments.

One of the most shocking statistics is that while 97 per cent. of those calling Saneline with a diagnosis of psychosis, and 86 per cent. of those with depression or anxiety, are given medication, only 4 per cent. of those with schizophrenia and 7 per cent. of those with depression receive any form of talking therapy. Callers who ring Saneline say that what they need most is counselling and someone to listen in a non-judgmental and supportive way at times of crisis and loneliness. The wait for counselling on the NHS can be as long as 18 months and the lack of talking therapies is a serious lacuna in the mental health services. It can be extremely difficult for people with mental health problems to find anyone to talk to, and impossible for their families. Without Saneline, the cries for help would go unheeded.

Saneline provides a vital lifeline for families and carers. Only two weeks ago a mother said in a letter to SANE's chief executive, Marjorie Wallace:

In my view, the reason that Saneline has been so effective over the years is the intensive training of its volunteers and the rigorous way in which service quality is maintained. The volunteer training programme, which has encouraged many individuals to go into the mental health services, is endorsed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and accredited to NVQ level 3. Its reputation is such that the London helproom is currently inundated with requests from people wanting to become volunteers. In this, the year of the volunteer, it seems extraordinary that 125 highly trained volunteers are being lost as a result of the closures of the Saneline offices in Macclesfield and Bristol. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West wishes to intervene at this point.

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op): I shall intervene on the Minister.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that clear.
22 Mar 2005 : Column 859

Last weekend, the Home Secretary asked his advisers on drugs policy to review his predecessor's reclassification of cannabis in light of research linking its use to mental health problems. SANE has been at the forefront of a campaign to alert the authorities and young people, especially those who are vulnerable to mental illness, to the dangers of taking cannabis and other street drugs.

A high proportion of people serving custodial sentences have a mental health illness and many have abused street drugs. In 2004, there were 95 self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales, and in the five-month period from April to August 2004, there were 7,680 incidents of self-harm. It is ironic that from next month Saneline has been chosen by the Prison Service as its accredited mental health helpline for prisoners throughout the country.

SANE has contributed in no small way to helping the Government to provide the safe, sound and supportive mental health service that they promised. Its representatives have taken part in various reference groups and taskforces, and are currently working as advisers to the Department of Health's anti-stigma initiative and the national social inclusion programme. I am sure that the House will agree that SANE and its chief executive, Marjorie Wallace, have a highly respected and independent voice in the media, giving more than 400 interviews a year and being quoted extensively in the press.

Throughout its 18 years of campaigning and awareness raising, the organisation has been highly influential, as was recognised in the tribute paid to it by the Prime Minister's wife, when she hosted a Downing street reception for the charity. She said:

That reflects well on SANE, Saneline and its activities.

SANE's independence of view is respected and valued every bit as much by ordinary people, service users and their families and those who really know the challenges faced by those struggling with mental health and providing support. There are literally thousands of people who are intensely grateful for SANE's common sense, intelligence and compassionate voice. It is extraordinary, therefore, that the Department should have brought about a situation that threatens the whole future of Saneline and has damaged such a valuable and indispensable organisation.

When the Minister replies, I call on her to say why the Department defaulted on its contract with SANE to provide the Saneline service. The Minister's answers to the written questions that I have asked on this matter have given no explanation as to the reason for the withholding of funds for an agreed level of service. Furthermore, as the service was precisely costed, it could not have escaped the attention of departmental officials that the withholding of funds would throw the charity into a financial crisis and cripple its fundraising. Not only was it illegal to delay payment under the Late Payment of Commercial Debt (Interest) Act 1998, but it broke the spirit and terms of the compact on relations between Government and the voluntary and
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community sector in key respects, including the failure to make payments promptly, the lack of transparency and open dialogue—I have seen documents where instructions were given not to talk about the contract—and the failure to ensure that organisations that are funded centrally do not capsize as a result of breakdown in the partnership and failure to discuss ongoing viability.

It is reported in The Times today that the Department agreed the contract with SANE to provide the Saneline service for a payment of £2 million over two years on the understanding that the charity would become self-sufficient. I am told that that is totally untrue. In a further statement reported in the same article in The Times, the Department said that SANE had failed to bid for funds in the usual way for the coming financial year. That, again, is completely untrue. SANE submitted a bid for funding from the section 64 scheme in 2004 which was rejected.

A response from the Department to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations about breaches of the compact in relation to its dealings with SANE stated that the

Contrary to that statement, no resolution was agreed at the meeting between the Department and SANE on 21 December last year to which, by the way, a legal adviser to the Department had been invited without notice to SANE.

Again, I have seen correspondence between SANE's lawyer and the Department's legal adviser and between SANE's chairman and the Department's director of social care. Far from revealing an agreed resolution, it showed profound shock and disagreement from the charity's point of view and that fundamental matters remain unresolved.

I would be interested to know when interest and compensation will be paid to the charity in respect of the failure to pay moneys due until 11 months into the current financial year. I trust that the Minister is aware that because SANE was unable to sign off audited accounts—a requirement of all major trusts and donors—due to the Department's failure to pay moneys due and was unable to explain the reason for the growing deficit, the charity was unable to submit bids for funds or to explain the growing deficit.

In addition, the erosion of its energies and the impact of those months of uncertainty have inevitably affected the charity's relationship with its donors and thereby its future. As a result of the events of the past year, SANE has had to withdraw from the mental health helplines partnership. That is not just because the organisation cannot benefit from the funds available to the partnership, but because it can no longer afford to give the substantial amount of time needed to its work when it is struggling for survival.

There is a much more fundamental issue. If Saneline ceases to exist as a result of the actions of the Department of Health, the partnership's vision, as I understand it, of a seamless helpline throughout the country will be extremely difficult to realise. Saneline is the only helpline available to provide a specialist mental health service in all parts of the country, out of normal
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service hours. Contrary to what is stated in The Times, to which I have alluded, the Department's spokesman gives a totally misleading impression in saying that the calls handled by Saneline amount to only 1 per cent. of annual mental health-related calls. I understand that the Department is not able to make that assessment because the figures for the various helplines are not comparable and have not been made available to the mental health helplines partnership. Other helplines that answer calls from those with mental health problems do not provide the coverage of Saneline, nor do they cover all parts of the country or all conditions, as Saneline does. Instead, they respond to specialist conditions and cover only limited areas.

I suggest, therefore, that only Saneline can provide the seamless helpline cover that is sought nationally, and that if the threat to it puts it out of business the Government will not be able to provide such cover. Moreover, without core funds being available, other mental health helplines would not be able to make good the shortfall. It is known that some are under threat and over-subscribed, and the likelihood of their being able to provide 24-hour seamless cover is remote. As with SANE, some organisations are believed to be considering their future in the face of funding difficulties. One organisation is appealing for funds for its helpline and, therefore, putting itself in competition for the same diminishing pot of funds as Saneline.

The mental health helplines partnership was set up, as the Minister knows, just over four years ago. Despite intensive efforts during that time, the 60-plus organisations forming its membership are only just establishing the machinery for deciding on the Government investment available. I understand that, as of last week, no funds had been allocated to any helplines.

I must conclude, therefore, that apart from some groups with a specialist emphasis, which may survive, on the current evidence of difficulty and the way in which the investment for the partnership is structured, a seamless service at the current standards and levels of coverage provided by Saneline does not seem a viable policy. I am in no doubt that, without Saneline, it is a vision that cannot be realised.

Unless a rescue package can be put together, I am told—and I emphasise this to the Minister—that SANE will have to make further drastic closures. The country may lose one of the most valuable sources of help and research, and one of the most eloquent champions of those people whose needs the Government have said are one their three health priorities.

I pay tribute again to the dedication of Marjorie Wallace and her team at SANE, and to the staff at the Saneline helpline centres—not least the one in my constituency, led by Nick Pyle. Saneline provides an invaluable service to people experiencing mental illness, and to their families. With the whole service now at stake, will the Minister confirm that the Government will consider a rescue package, as they have for the missing persons helpline?

I hope that the Minister can answer my questions on this very important matter.
22 Mar 2005 : Column 862

7.40 pm

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