DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday raised a number of important issues, one of which we believe has remained hidden from debate for too long and another which gives us cause for concern.
Mr Clegg’s pledge that his party would focus on improvements for those in need of treatment for mental health problems is to be welcomed.
His announcement of new waiting time targets for those suffering from a range of debilitating conditions such as bipolar disorder or anorexia was important not only because those suffering are in desperate need of help but because this is an area which must be discussed in public, and where stigma must be eroded.
One in four people is affected by mental health issues and it is time that these conditions were treated just as seriously as physical ailments. A pledge that young people suffering from psychosis will be seen within 14 days – the same target as that applied to cancer patients – should be applauded as recognising this need.
Of course, with the NHS in Scotland devolved to Holyrood, no Lib Dem policy at Westminster would impact in practical terms but Mr Clegg must take credit for making mental health a key area for all political parties.
Now that the Deputy Prime Minister has kick-started this crucially important debate, it is to be hoped that MSPs will bring forward their own ideas.
But while we found Mr Clegg’s comments on the issue of mental health hugely re-assuring, his remarks about the introduction of further devolution to Scotland gave pause for thought.
The Lib Dem leader’s insistence that his party is fully committed to making a more muscular Holyrood was right and proper. Scotland would not forgive any failure to carry through on a promise – made by all three of Westminster’s main unionist parties – that more powers will be delivered to Holyrood.
But Mr Clegg’s attack on Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal that these powers should be delivered in tandem with a new system at Westminster, where only English MPs would vote on legislation affecting England, brought into focus the potential for this process to be slowed down or even derailed.
Mr Clegg described the Tory proposal as “entirely self-serving” and, given that such a change might scupper a future Labour majority – or Lib-Lab coalition – at Westminster, it is easy to see why he might take that view. Mr Cameron has previously said that the delivery of new powers to Holyrood is not conditional on the introduction of English votes for English MPs. It would be completely unacceptable for a row over voting rights at Westminster to get in the way of more devolution for Scotland. Given the obvious issues building around it, the Prime Minister should continue to underline that this issue will not become a barrier to the new settlement Scots demand.
Nice idea, but how do we pay for it?
SCOTTISH Labour leader Johann Lamont sought yesterday to seize the policy agenda with proposals for greater access to free childcare.
Her suggestions – that there should be a cap on costs and the introduction of free care for parents who want to go to college – are attractive. Anything that encourages more people into the workplace is worth serious consideration.
But questions remain about how Ms Lamont’s ideas might become reality.
Less than two years ago, the Labour leader delivered a speech in which she said the time had come for a full debate about how exactly we fund public services and which areas should be prioritised.
Labour says the proposal for college places will cost up to £35 million a year, the rest is uncosted, and if this investment does create real opportunities for those who might otherwise be left on benefits then it may be money well spent. But we need answers about what the total will be and where the money is to be found.
Childcare has become a key political issue, and not only because of its practical benefits. It’s an area with huge voter appeal and all major parties are keen to make the most attractive offer.
Ms Lamont appeared yesterday to have forgotten her speech of 2012 and chose, instead, to make what seemed like a shiny manifesto pledge.
Yes, affordable childcare is fundamentally a “good thing”, but it is time that all parties took seriously the debate over which areas of public spending might suffer as others are increased.
Any politician with aspirations to govern cannot duck these difficult questions.