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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) on securing this debate, which gives us the opportunity to consider an issue of interest to his constituents and all those interested in mental health services, especially mental health helplines.
I join the hon. Gentleman in praising the work of the staff and volunteers of Saneline, which has provided an excellent service to its callers over the past 12 years. He set out very lucidly the help that mental health helplines provide. Research by the charity Rethink has found that mental health helplines make a significant contribution to the support that service users and carers need. That is why they are so highly valued.
Until four years ago, mental health helplines operated independently and competitively, often in isolation. Sometimes services were duplicated, and adequate governance was not always in place to protect service users and carers. Training for helpline workers was inadequate, there was not enough capacity available, and callers were not able to access a helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is why, in June 2001, my Department took a strategic decision to bring together as many of the mental health helplines as possible, under the mental health helplines partnership.
The partnership has more than 60 members, including Rethink, Mind, Turning Point, Samaritans, Mental Health Matters, No Panic, the National Phobics Society and others. Until this week, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield said, Saneline was a member of the partnership, and was on its national steering group. The aim of the partnership is to ensure that calls from people with mental health problems can be answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year. The partnership also ensures that services provided are of high quality and supported by proper governance arrangements.
The partnership's development was supported by a grant from the Department of £5 million over three years, which was divided into three areas of use. The first aim was to establish a telecom infrastructure, so that a 24/7 service could be achieved by enabling callers to switch from one service to another. In that way, they can get help 24 hours a day.
Secondly, money is available to commission the provision of shared services such as training, education, marketing, financial management and business plan development. Thirdly, approximately 20 per cent. of the grant has been put aside for mental health helplines in immediate financial crisis which, with temporary help, could overcome some of their difficulties and continue to provide a service. To date, 12 bids have been received for that money, and they are currently being considered by the partnership.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield asked some specific questions about Saneline. The service answers about 50,000 calls a year. It is not the largest mental health helpline; for example, Rethink answers 100,000 calls per year. However, since its inception, Saneline has received £3.6 million from the Department of Health, £1.6 million of which was through section 64 and other grants. More recently, a decision was taken to award Saneline additional funding, at a time when it
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was under particular financial pressure. The understanding was that by 31 March 2005 Saneline would have become self-sufficient and would benefit from the funding that we have invested in the telephones partnership. Between 2003 and 2005, Saneline received £2 million.
No other charitable mental health helpline has received core funding for its business, and other organisations have expressed concern about that. They feel that the appropriate funding mechanism is through the partnership. The hon. Gentleman raised some allegations about delays in payments this year. There are some matters of dispute on the submission of invoices and bank details, but I can assure him that my Department is trying to resolve some of those disputes. I cannot go into further detail at this stage, but I undertake to keep him informed about the outcome of those discussions.
Dr. Naysmith: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I also thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for allowing me to take part in the debate and for outlining so well the invaluable service provided by Saneline.
The office of the Bristol section of Saneline is in the same building as mine, so I know its work wellthe good service it provides at all times of the evening. That efficient service is run by one manager, one administrator, six co-ordinators and 61 active trained volunteers. There are also about 15 applicants waiting for the chance to be trained. That is a valuable resource and it would be a disgrace if it was wasted, so I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to try to find a way to maintain the service that those people deliver so well.
Ms Winterton: I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels about that service, especially about the work put in by volunteers in his constituency. We have discussed it on a previous occasion. He is right.
Saneline currently has three call centres, in Macclesfield, Bristol and London. It operates a call plan, which allows it to open only two centres for most of the time; sometimes only one centre is open, but they all operate from 12 noon to 2 am each day. The proposed closure of two call centres will no doubt result in a surplus of skilled staff and volunteers. I entirely agree that it is important that we do not lose such valuable skills and expertise.
The independent chair of the telephones partnership has written to me and to the chief executive of Saneline to offer the charity support in managing any staff issues, such as the use of skilled Saneline volunteers through other members of the partnership. He has also offered
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any support the partnership can provide to assist Saneline to redesign its services to help to minimise the impact on callers of its decision to close the two call centres. The chair has also spoken to my officials, who will offer the partnership assistance should Saneline accept that offer of help and support.
We have the full support of partnership members in our decision regarding the future funding of Saneline. We will continue to support Saneline through the partnership and through the opportunity to bid for the funding available in the same way as all the other helpline service providers.
Ministers and officials have met Saneline consistently over a number of years and have made significant efforts to support it to become self-sufficient and self-funding, as other such providers are. No one helpline can or should be expected to provide all things to everyone. It is not what the colleagues in the partnership tell us, and it is not what people who use such services tell us.
I have acknowledged the good work that Saneline has undertaken over the years, but I hope that hon. Members will accept that it is one of many helpline services, and it would be wrong and inappropriate of the Department to single out Saneline in the manner that is perhaps being suggested.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Will the Minister give me an assurance that she will be prepared to meet me and her hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith), perhaps with a representative of Saneline, to discuss how a package can be put together to save what is a very valuable organisation with huge experience and knowledge?
Ms Winterton: Of course, I am always prepared to meet hon. Members. I should like to await the outcome of Saneline's response to the partnership's offer, but I will be more than happy to meet hon. Members.
What we are trying to achieve with the support of mental health charities, their staff and dedicated volunteers is to bring mental health helplines into the 21st century as a credible and important part of the delivery of health care support. I am aware of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith), but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to support the strategy that the Government have outlined, bringing Saneline within the ambit of the telephones helpline partnership, in line with all the other organisations that provide similar services.