Ruth: Mental health has been a Cinderella issue for far too long

19 Oct 2016

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson addressed the issue of mental health as she gave the Williamson Lecture at Stirling University. The full text of her speech is below:

“Good evening everybody and can I thank the University of Stirling for inviting me here.

And can I thank you all for attending this lecture this evening

Now I am going to try and do something utterly out of the ordinary this evening.

I’d like to try and deliver a speech without mentioning Brexit or Scottish independence once.

Instead, my radical idea is to speak to you about the actual day to day issues that affect us in our lives right here.

It’s a controversial departure in Scottish politics – I know that.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep it up for a whole hour, but I’m going to try.


My speech is entitled “A Government for the Common Good.”

And I’d like to begin this evening with a puzzle for any politics students here this evening.

Which politician said the following: “It’s time to remember the good that government can do. We should employ the power of government for the good of the people.”

That sounds suitable interventionist. Perhaps one from Jeremy Corbyn? Maybe even a Chairman Mao?

Well, the correct answer is that well-known tribune of the hard-left, Theresa May, speaking at this year’s Conservative party conference.

I will forgive those of you who missed it as it didn’t make many headlines the day after.

But it was part of a key section in her speech to the conference where she very deliberately sought to strike a new tone to the way we DO government.

It’s a message which I too have been trying to get across in speeches over the last year or so.

And it’s this.

Government does not have all the answers, but government can and should be a force for good.

And what I’d like to talk about this evening is how we do this – how we use the tools of government in the right way.

And how we use that strong government, dedicated to the common good, to overcome some of the big social challenges we face.

Now – I do so knowing what some of you might be thinking at this point.

Some of you will be wondering how warm words from me about state intervention square with the image of my party as the slayer of the State, and the champion of small government.

Others of you – the cynics – will already be writing this off as classic political cross-dressing…an attempt by a centre-right politician to clothe themselves in garb that’s acceptable to the centre-left.

I’d like to explain why I think both these views are misjudged.

Because they don’t take into account a long tradition of Conservative thought that sees a positive role for government.

Going back to the Prime Minister’s speech two weeks ago, she sought to place our views in the middle of two extremes.

Between libertarian non-intervention on one hand, and socialist over intervention on the other.

What does that mean in practice?

Well, the stereotype for libertarianism was given many years ago by the master of the one-liner, Ronald Reagan.

What, he asked, are the nine most terrifying words in the English language? The answer: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.

Now, I have plenty of sympathy for the sentiment behind Reagan’s quip.

Too often, big government has dulled the creative spark in individuals and in society at large.

Full of good intentions, government has too often bred a culture of dependency.

And we only have to see the trail of worklessness across huge parts of urban Scotland to see how those worthy attempts to help have backfired tragically.

But even Reagan would have conceded, I suspect, that no government at all isn’t the answer.

Because the Conservative way isn’t to sweep government aside, but to ensure we get the right level of intervention.

And where we have succeeded is when we have used the levers of government to ensure that the lives of individuals are made easier and the condition of society is made stronger.

The trick is finding the right balance.

Socialism has always got the balance wrong.

Enforcing equality of outcome across society demands no less.

But equally, politicians on the right have also sometimes got it wrong too.

…by thinking that – because things seem OK for us – we need not act.

Like in many things, Tony Blair got it part-right.

In his memoirs, he writes about how he respects much about Conservative belief. But his criticism about Conservatism is that, too often, it errs on the side of the status quo, rather than in embracing necessary change.

That is spot on.

So – just as the left needs to guard against the iron law of unintended consequences, so we on the centre-right must be on the look out for signs of blithe complacency.

For the temptation not to act.

Government HAS to act – and we need to recognise that it is the duty of government to do so.

So I would argue – when centre-right politicians talk about the good that government can do, this is not a clever political stunt to triangulate and win over left-wingers.

Rather when Conservative politicians state that government is a force for good, we are acting in the finest traditions of our party.

The tradition that understands we must not crowd out society nor the spark of individual freedom – but that we must also employ an active government to tackle some of the major social problems we see in society around us.

If I may be allowed one small political point, I don’t see this kind of realistic, centre-ground approach coming from the Labour party now – or, frankly given its current course, for ever.

And I have yet to hear from the SNP a coherent vision on this subject either.

That should act as a spur to us on the centre-right.

Because the lack of any credible left-wing agenda on social issues right now simply makes it all the more vital that the Conservatives take up this agenda and confront the social pressures we are facing, not duck them.

It’s why in my lecture to the Joseph Rowentree Foundation I talked about the dangers of people leaving unemployment for low-paid work still being trapped in the low wage economy 10 years later. It’s why in a Centre for Social Justice event in Birmingham a fortnight ago, I spoke of the attainment gap starting before a child begins primary school – and the importance of early intervention.

And it’s why in recent weeks, we’ve published a paper on social justice setting out how we’d use government to ease these sorts of pressures.

And I’d like to use the rest of my lecture this evening to spell out just some of those social problems being faced across all stratas of society – working class and middle class, rural and urban – and address how best government can be used to tackle them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives you a flavour of the kind of approach I’d like to see – both here in Scotland, and right across the UK too – in a number of areas.

I’d like to pick out five:

In-work poverty,

The education gap,

The lack of childcare,

The lack of decent housing

And poor mental health,

Five issues which, I believe, are at the core of many of the problems we face in society and which – if addressed – will do much to help the economy, to ease pressures on the NHS and to make us a more cohesive society.

So firstly – in work poverty.

By this I mean people who are working hard, busting a gut to keep their heads above water, but who are still finding it near on impossible to make ends meet.

The uncomfortable truth for all politicians is that this situation is not one we have managed to improve greatly over the last generation.

Ipsos Mori did research into this recently – it found that, in Scotland, fully a half of people classified in poverty are from households where at least one person had a job.

That has risen marginally since 1998. Think about that: poverty isn’t something experienced by people out of a job; it’s something that affects households where family members are going out to work.

Centre-right politicians cannot sit idly by over this.

It’s our belief that hard work should lead to a just reward.

If this is not happening, and working households are still finding themselves in poverty, then it follows we should want government to intervene.

And I would argue the single most important thing is to push through on our pledge to create a new national living wage.

No one policy lever will have such a lasting effect.

For example, if you are paid less than the living wage right now, a third of people say they are struggling financially to keep going.

But if you are paid the living wage, that figure falls to just 12%.

Indeed, the Resolution Foundation estimated only last week that implementing the new living wage by 2020 will reduce the number of people in poorly paid employment in Scotland by fully 70,000.

Now – that will still leave 400,000 people in low pay, the Foundation found.

But it is a start.

So I hope the UK Government will seek to prioritise the continuing increase in the living wage over these coming years.

We know this will be tough for businesses – especially small firms – which are trying to manage this change.

But there is no question in my mind that the national living wage is the right priority – giving more security to people who are doing the right thing in going out to work, and need to know there is a reward that comes with that.

Secondly, the education gap.

In Scotland, when we’ve spoken about a gap in education in recent months, this has tended to focus heavily on the difference in attainment between rich and poor.

And rightly.

Because it is, in my view, a complete and utter scandal.

In primary school, the percentage of P4 pupils from the poorest backgrounds performing well or very well has fallen from 70% in 2011 to just 55% last year.

In high school, children from the least deprived backgrounds are seven times more likely to achieve ‘3A’ Higher passes than those from deprived backgrounds.

Nearly a third of all schools in our most deprived areas are rated ‘weak’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ – compared to 10 percent across the whole of Scotland.

And in socially egalitarian Scotland, just one in ten youngsters from deprived backgrounds go to university, compared to 1 in 5 in England.

Again, this is a core concern for those of us on the centre-right. Our belief in equality of opportunity rests fundamentally on a decent education system for all – that’s where you address poverty in the best way.

So we have to act.

We first raised the attainment gap in the Scottish Parliament nearly three years ago – and I am glad that the SNP Government is now beginning to act – ten years too late, you might say.

But we want to do far more, using the levers of government to properly reform the system.

To begin with, the SNP now appears to accept the commonly held view that more autonomy and freedom for school heads and teachers will lead to better results.

But it must follow this to its logical conclusion by backing real devolution to schools, and allowing schools to be set up outside local authority control if they wish.

We also need more good teachers – and government could act by introducing a postgraduate teaching bursary; issued on condition that students go on to teach at a Scottish state school.

And the SNP could also end their blinkered opposition to the brilliant Teach First programme which – across England – is channelling some of their best graduates into teaching in some of their toughest schools.

I might add they include 100 of Scotland’s best graduates; young men and women who were taught here in Scotland, who are now going to teach down South because we aren’t giving them the same opportunities.

And we also need to do far more to support our college sector – where thousands of youngsters get the chance to learn a trade or a skill.

College places have been slashed under the SNP – largely to help fund the headline pledge against university tuition fees.

So – while I know this isn’t a popular thing to say to a hall full of students – we also think a new graduate endowment payment – payable after you leave Uni – should be introduced in order to help support post 16 education.

At least no-one can accuse me of being a populist.

So this all relates to young people already in the education system. But we also know that the attainment gap starts before primary.

The average difference in vocabulary between children from wealthier, better educated Scottish households and their  poorer counterparts is 18 months. Think of that – by the time a poorer child is 5 years old, they can already be 18 months behind their peers in language and 13 months behind in problem solving abilities. A gap which widens during their school career.

So that brings me on to issue number three

The lack of childcare.

This month, we learnt that UK families pay more of their income on childcare than any other comparable European country.

The bottom line is that, for many, the cost and inflexibility of childcare is an inhibition for parents who either want to – or need to – go back to work or keep careers going.

And it is the poorest families who are hit the hardest.

Again, for those of on the centre-right, there is a necessity to act. We believe in the core role in society of the family.

We therefore must find the policies that ease family life and that ensure families can cope with the trials of work and bringing up children, not fall apart under the strain.

This is something that is recognised across the political divide and we have big promises from the SNP Government in the offing – with a doubling in the amount of free childcare being proposed.

Now – I was glad to see last week that the SNP has accepted one of our key proposals, to ensure that funding starts to follow the child.

Up till now, childcare was made available – but too many parents weren’t able to access it. They were restricted in the days of the week and the providers they could use.

The new system, which we’ve been calling for, should mean that parents can access childcare when they want it, not when the state dictates it.

But more still needs to be done.

And we believe we need to tip the system more in favour of poorer parents.

At the moment, free childcare is available for children aged 3 upwards, and some 2 year olds.

We’d ensure more of the extra funding being set aside on childcare was given to poorer parents of children aged 1 and 2.

This will do two things: it will give high quality childcare to young children from poorer homes. It will also help low income parents stay in the workplace so they can keep earning.

This move is a tough choice because it would mean less funding available to middle class families.

But we believe it’s the kind of choice that is necessary if we are to even up the playing field.

To ensure that the key Conservative principle of equality of opportunity, from the very start of life, is met.

Fourthly, housing.

A statistic that I quoted in my speech at party conference two weeks ago bears repeating: the number of people in their thirties who are now living in private rented accommodation has tripled since the birth of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.


Increasingly, the fact is that – unless you are lucky enough to have parents with the cash to help you out, or an inheritance on the way – the dream of owning a home has become just that: a fantasy.

Once again, this is not a situation which a centre-right politician should accept.

The merits of a property owning democracy has long been a cornerstone of Conservative belief.

It is how families can prosper, it’s how society develops, it’s how communities thrive.

So if fewer and fewer people are able to even have the hope of owning their own home, government has to act for the common good.

In recent years, government has emphasised efforts to boost demand in the housing market, through schemes like help to buy.

But it’s quite clear to me that we need to do far more to boost supply.

In short, we need a new housebuilding revolution in Scotland which massively increases the amount of housing available.

In total, I’d like to see an additional 100,000 homes built over the course of this Parliament.

And government’s job should be to sweep aside much of the planning regulations which are frustrating both builders and local communities in getting this underway.

One way to do that quickly is for local authorities to free up more land.

They should make it clear which brown field land in their area is available for building. And there should be a presumption that this land is immediately set aside for new housing.

And increasing housing doesn’t all need to be new-build – there are currently nearly 30,000 empty properties in Scotland which, with imagination, could be brought back into the housing market.

By, for example, giving grants that help local authorities or housebuilders the incentive to bring those properties back to habitable condition.

Just think of the difference that would make – 30,000 families given the opportunity to move into a newly refurbished house they can call their own.

30,000 families with the stability to get on in life and to raise children knowing they have a home of their own.

It is a great and pressing matter and we simply must act.

Because more homes means a more stable society.

Lastly, let me turn to the topic of mental health – something I will dwell on for a little longer than those that have gone before.

Quite simply, we need to wake up to what is fast becoming a major social crisis.

Mental health has been a Cinderella issue for far too long.

Too often, society has dismissed people suffering from depression or anxiety as somehow not being ‘properly’ unwell.

Too often, people have been made to feel embarrassed to ask for help – which in turn has only made their difficulties worse.

As we set out in our manifesto at the elections earlier this year, we believe government now must shift the balance so that society and government acknowledges these issues are every bit as pressing and damaging as physical illness or injury.

That means parity of esteem between physical ill health and mental ill health.

And we must do that urgently because we are now seeing a huge increase in issues of mental ill health.

The Scottish Health survey last month found that one in five adults reported symptoms of depression last year, up from 14% six years ago.

And the problem is particularly difficult among girls and young women from the start of their teenage years to the age of 25.

Figures show that nearly a quarter have self-harmed.

According to one recent survey south of the border, of 30,000 pupils aged 14 and 15, one in three teen girls suffer from anxiety of depression – up 10% in the past decade.

Of course we do not know all the reasons behind all the individual stories here.

But the clear verdict from research in this area suggests it is largely due to the ever more hostile social environment which young people are facing.

One that is being super-charged by the explosion in the use of social media.

The “switched on” generation exists in an environment where we are rarely absent from the public domain.

And for many, this public domain is one which judges people – and judges them harshly on purely external factors  – by their looks, by their timeline, by the number of their likes,  – and heckles them if they are deemed to fall short.

It is becoming little less than a bully culture.

Which presents superficial images of perfection.

Which mocks those who fail to meet it – led, incredibly, by the man who wants to become President of the United States of America.

Which sends the message that body image is all, thereby sexualising young people from an ever earlier age.

Writing in the Herald newspaper recently, the journalist Vicki Allan quoted a teenage mental health adviser in Scotland describing how many girls saw things.

“You need to get so many likes on your photos for it to validate that you’re pretty. You’re constantly comparing yourself with other people online.”

Just step back from that for a minute.

It is quite appalling  – after forty years of advancement in gender equality, we appear to be going back in time to a society where girls once again feel they are overwhelmingly being judged by how they look.

Is it any wonder that many of them are left feeling inadequate and end up with serious mental health problems?

I’m sorry, this won’t do. We need to act across the board, and an active, vigorous government should now be taking this crisis seriously.

Rules surrounding social media platforms themselves of course need to be discussed as we address cause and aggravating factors.

But we must also address outcomes, which is why my party – and many other politicians across the UK – are now highlighting the need to put mental health on a par with physical health within the NHS.

I believe we must see concerted government action which ensures far greater access to mental health support, particularly for the younger generation.

The switched on world is piling huge pressures on women – and men –  to live up to unattainable expectations,  and the speed with which this revolution has occurred has caught us by surprise.

So government must move quickly to catch up – and start providing people with the education they need on how to tackle this new world and stay psychologically healthy at the same time.

For us, that includes far greater access to mental health professional in GPs and hospitals. It also means providing more counselling in secondary schools, so that mental health problems can be picked up early.

We may also need tougher criminal guidance too. Two weeks ago, we saw the top prosecutor down south warning social media users that they could be charged for a range of offensive behaviour – such as taking part in online harassment campaigns against girls and women.

I hope that here in Scotland, we are equally as vigilant in ensuring that the law keeps pace with changes in society.

And I hope that this is one issue where we can, as a political culture, find some much-needed consensus.

Frankly, there isn’t much politics in this issue. You don’t have to be Unionist or Nationalist, left or right, to see the need to act.

So I hope that – in amidst all the inevitable disagreements that I will have with Nicola Sturgeon on everything from independence to tax – this is one area where we can work together and achieve some real and lasting results – starting with the problems facing women.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve spelled out five social problems there which I believe we can and should tackle.

I am aware I have left many blanks – for example, I have omitted to mention the huge new welfare powers soon coming to the Scottish Parliament and to which we are giving a great degree of thought.

But I simply wanted to use this stage to give a flavour of the kind of government I want to see.

…the kind of government that one day in the not too distant future, I’d quite like to lead.

One that rewards hard work and sends out the message that you are always better off getting up and going out in the morning than not doing so.

That refuses to accept anything other than excellence in an education system

That frees up parents to combine work and family life so they can provide for their children.

That gives those same families the promise of a home of their own by taking tough choices on housing.

And that recognises social crises when they emerge and moves quickly to tackle them.

Lastly, before I finish, let me say a few words about the political situation we face in Scotland and why I fear it is stopping us from dealing with them.

Action on these areas requires long-term focus. And it requires a government which is 100% focussed on the day job.

And the pity for me is that while we have plenty of good intentions, the Scottish Government is often too focussed on its constitutional priorities – and ignored that more important role.

This is why I get so passionate about moving on from the referendum two years ago.

And why I am so frustrated by the announcement of a new referendum bill to be published tomorrow.

Not just because I am a committed Unionist and always will be.

But also because I fear our constitutional debate is sucking energy away from areas which require real action.

As a case in point, I would point to the SNP conference at the weekend – three days of constitutional navel-gazing, with policy proposals only getting a look in right at the end in the First Minister’s speech.

So my repeated calls for Nicola Sturgeon to dump a second referendum on independence isn’t just because of my core belief in the Union.

It’s also because it’s the path to better government – to a government of the common good – that focuses on improving the society we have, not an independence debate we settled two years ago.

Oops, I just mentioned independence.

Well folks, I tried.

To sum up, I remain optimistic that we can move on in Scotland to a more fruitful debate.

One where the priorities of our citizens are addressed by the administration that serves them.

That despite the financial pressures we face, despite the constitutional debate which continues to dominate,  I am convinced that with good government and real political will, there is nothing to stop us defeating many of the social ills we all want to tackle.”