The children’s commissioner has launched a savage attack on the head of the NHS, accusing him of denigrating research that shows an “unacceptable” lack of children’s mental health provision.
In a highly unusual move, Anne Longfield has published an open letter to Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, accusing him of ignoring young people’s experiences of the service and the frustrations of their parents. Laying out a list of grievances against him and his team, she also threatens to use the law to compel him to hand over data on waiting times for children’s mental health services.
Longfield made the decision to go public with her complaints – published on the commissioner’s website – after Stevens rubbished many of the claims in her recent report into children’s mental health, an issue she identified as her top priority after consulting with children.
“Many told me about their desperate attempts, sometimes lasting years, to access support, and even primary school children raised concerns about anxiety,” Longfield told Stevens in the letter. The report, published to coincide with World Mental Health Day last week, estimated that only between a quarter and a fifth of children with mental health conditions received help last year. It stated: “Progress in improving children’s mental health services has been unacceptably slow.”
Stevens is standing his ground. In a response to Longfield, obtained by the Observer, he suggests NHSE was “bounced” into giving a response to the report only after aspects of it were shared with journalists. He said that a key finding of the report, that “the government’s much-vaunted prioritisation of mental health has yet to translate into change at a local level”, was “demonstrably factually inaccurate”. Stevens writes: “I’m afraid we stand by our view that your report did indeed in places give a misleading view of NHS care.”
Longfield had warned that provision for young people was a postcode lottery and said that “children’s inability to access mental health support” was leading to a range of extra problems, “from school exclusions to care placements breaking down to children ending up in the youth justice system”.
It is highly unusual for the holders of two important public offices to be involved in such a public argument, particularly over an issue as sensitive as children’s mental health. Longfield, whose role is to promote and defend the rights of children, was appointed to the post by then education secretary Nicky Morgan in 2014. Stevens took his job at the head of NHS England (NHSE) in the same year.
Longfield’s report made difficult reading for the government at a time when concerns over the health service have reached a critical level. Theresa May identified improving mental health as a key issue but, before the busy winter period, there are concerns the NHS will struggle to cope with demand even for what are considered priority services, such as accident and emergency.