Tuesday 15 March 2011

Ballots and Bullets

Following extensive consultation Hafal will shortly be publishing its Assembly Election Manifesto in anticipation of the poll on 5 May 2011. Final details are being settled but let me rehearse some of the issues here.

Of course we need to quiz candidates and parties on the extent to which they are prepared to protect resources for mental health services (both NHS and local authority) and especially the funds needed for the most vulnerable, those using secondary mental health services, which presently require about 80% of mental-health-specific resources and will continue to need this level of support.

But resources aren’t everything. We are overdue for a new vision for mental health services and Hafal has been arguing for a long time that the best approach is to build a vision alongside the Mental Health Measure (which of course had cross-party support), in particular recognising the centrality of individual care planning for secondary mental health services and the use of such plans to promote a recovery-based approach.

It is probably too much to hope that political parties will set out a clear vision on mental health issues but we need to test their – and individual candidates’ – approach and specifically whether they are prepared to take on board the views of mental health patients and their families and to respect their choices.

Watch this space for more details – I will draw attention to the Manifesto when it comes out at the end of the month. Incidentally, if that seems quite late in the day then let me explain that all experience indicates that nobody is remotely interested in such things until just a few weeks before the election itself – so timing is everything!

Meanwhile, two more key questions ...

(1) Are there votes in mental health?

Quite apart from the detail of what we want from our politicians we need to flag up the political significance of mental health in these elections for both voters and candidates. Hafal has rightly made as much noise about this at previous elections as about the policy matters because we need to convince everybody involved that mental health can influence the outcome of elections, especially in Wales where the devolution settlement places a particular emphasis on health and social care in National Assembly elections.

Traditionally, it seems to me, mental health was discounted by politicians because they didn’t hear about it on the doorstep and at the hustings. Little wonder because of the stigma which would prevent people talking about mental health to their own families let alone at a public meeting. But this is changing, not least owing to Hafal’s efforts, and indeed we have seen much more about mental health in party manifestos in recent years as a result.

But we need to drive home this point and show that, in fact, mental health carries a heavy electoral punch if voters choose to exercise it. Consider: about one in thirty of us experience a serious mental illness in our lifetimes and it is not implausible to think that those people – and their close families and friends – would use their vote to support candidates who had an exceptional policy which would assist people with a serious mental illness.

(2) Does the Assembly election cover all the key issues for people with a serious mental illness?

The short answer is “no”.

The greatest concern of people with a serious mental illness and their families today is welfare benefits which are not a devolved area. We need to be sure that we are not deflected by the election from the challenge of influencing the current reform of both disability and general benefits. To this end Hafal has recently joined forces with other UK mental health campaigners to submit a response on reform to DLA and will do the same shortly on the Welfare Bill.

Criminal Justice is the other key non-devolved area and Hafal will be watching how the UK Government moves forward following consultation on its Green Paper "Breaking the Cycle". More about this in due course.


This year sees the 180th anniversary of the 1831 general election which saw riots and mayhem in the streets of Carmarthen. Tory candidate John Jones of Ystrad was injured in the violence and the election had to be postponed until August.

Carmarthen traditionally takes its elections very seriously, in the past not trusting simply to the boring ballot box but employing bribery, corruption and intimidation to give the whole business a zest quite absent from today's contests. The rioting was so customary that to this day the two main streets leading to the town centre are known as Red Street and Blue Street where supporters of the Whigs and Tories respectively would congregate on election day to exchange abuse and, not unusually, gunfire.

I suspect that amid this vigorous form of electioneering there was little attention paid to the attitudes of the candidates to improving mental health services but I am happy to be put right on that if you know better.

My own experience of Carmarthen's democratic traditions came during the 1983 election when I attended a brutal and combative hustings in the Civic Hall and fell over Labour leader Michael Foot during the cheese and wine afterwards. I would like to be able to report that this was due to a riot situation but in fact Footie was, like many politicians when you see them in the flesh, very short and I simply didn't see him - but he apologised to me which was generous in the circumstances.