Benefit sanctions, social media tax and new support for teenagers: party conference roundup

The party conference season is almost at an end – so what policies are the parties promising to deliver on mental health?

11th October 2023 about a 3 minute read
"Too often when teenagers say they don’t feel safe, no one listens. Too often when they start to struggle with mental health, or go off the rails, or are groomed by criminal gangs, nothing is done.” Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary

The main political parties have now finished holding their annual conferences, and all have made promises on mental health.

The Liberal Democrats, whose conference was first, said they would call on the government to increase the tax for social media firms, because of the impact of social media on children’s mental health. They said that the digital services levy should be tripled from 2% to 6%, and that the extra revenue should be given to every school in the country to hire dedicated mental health professionals.

The party also promised to reduce out-of-area psychiatric placements, introduce walk-in centres in every community for young people who need mental health support, raise the age that young people transition into adult mental healthcare to 24 or 25 and roll out MOT mental health check-ups for men in their 40s, women who have recently given birth and people who have retired.

New benefit sanctions

The Conservatives did not address mental health specifically, but prime minister Rishi Sunak repeated the commitments made in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan to double the number of student places for doctors and nurses. He also said he would make smoking illegal, by raising the smoking age by one year, every year.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used the conference to confirm that the government would reform benefit sanctions, which could include new sanctions for people who do not go to a job interview or attend sessions with work coaches. He said: “It isn’t fair that someone who refuses to look seriously for a job gets the same as someone trying their best.” He also confirmed that he would change the process of work capability assessments, which are used to establish how much a disability or illness limits someone’s ability to work. The aim is to tighten the criteria used, to encourage more people currently signed off with long-term illness back into work.

Sure Start for teenagers

The Labour Party’s principal pledge on mental health related to its Young Futures programme, aimed at improving the wellbeing of young people. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper’s conference speech mentioned the rising rates of mental ill-health among young people, and their increasing susceptibility to violent crime. Knife crime, she said, had gone up by 70% in eight years.

Young people, Cooper said, were being “failed,” adding: “We must not fail them any more. Too often when teenagers say they don’t feel safe, no one listens. Too often when they start to struggle with mental health, or go off the rails, or are groomed by criminal gangs, nothing is done.”

The 10-year Young Futures programme, funded to the tune of £100m a year, would introduce new youth hubs, with both mental health workers and youth workers. The hubs would, said Cooper, perform the same role as the Sure Start centres delivered by the last Labour government. In particular, they would “tackle the crisis in youth mental health, to give teenagers the best start in life, to stop the knife crime that is killing our children.”

Among the smaller parties,  Plaid Cymru promised “ground-breaking mental health hubs promoting physical and mental health whether it’s through better housing, better diets, or promotion of sport or physical activity, in school and in all aspects of our lives.” The Green Party conference did not discuss mental health, though earlier this week the party said said that it would “focus funding on major improvements in mental health care and ensure mental health care receives the same priority as physical health care.” The SNP conference will take place next week.


FCC Insight

The party conferences provided an opportunity for the political parties to present the electorate with their flagship polices ahead of the next general election. Promises by both the Liberal Democrats and Labour to focus resources on addressing the mental health of children and young people are welcome, given the soaring rates of mental ill-health among this demographic. The Conservatives’ attention was directed more at bringing older people with long-term sickness, including mental illness, back into the workforce – but we have yet to hear the finer detail. We may have to wait a year to see which, if any of these policies, have come to fruition.