Decisions are being made: Suicide Prevention Strategy expected in March

16 January 2019 - by Claire Flynn

Today, Richard Pengelly, the Permanent Secretary for the Department of Health, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the new Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act gives him the ability to approve and implement the Suicide Prevention Strategy, once a budget has been approved in March.

The delayed implementation of Protect Life 2 has gained particular media traction in recent weeks, with politicians, and community and voluntary organisations calling for the strategy to be introduced. They queried what possible reason there could be for waiting to save lives. 

The local suicide rate is the highest in the UK and statistics paint a bleak picture of a post-conflict society. In the two decades since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, more people have died from suicide in Northern Ireland than died from 29 years of political violence.

As reported in the News Letter, calls were made this week for definitive research into the rate of Troubles-linked suicides. During that period, the numbers of people taking their own lives were similar to those in England. They are now double that. Significantly, Northern Ireland's spending on treating and addressing mental health is lower than England's outlay.

Interestingly, just two weeks ago during a meeting of the same Committee, Lady Sylvia Hermon MP raised the delay in the launch of a fresh plan with Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride.

At that time, Dr McBride did not hint at Mr Pengelly's announcement, stating, instead, that any measures which commit departments to long-term funding and policy change require ministerial approval, and so the strategy could not be advanced as long as the current political impasse continues.

Today's development shows that, yet again, the Department of Health can and will introduce certain changes in the absence of a minister, a stance emboldened, most likely, by the clear ministerial and all-party support for the transformation agenda outlined in the Bengoa report and implemented by TIG.

The challenge for anyone interested in public health policy and service delivery is to play a role in shaping the ongoing process of reform. The Northern Ireland Assembly's network of all-party groups, such as the APG on Suicide Prevention and the APG on Cancer, have seen the benefit of active engagement on key issues, taking evidence from a range of organisations and advancing issues with elected representatives and civil servants.  

Other decisions awaiting sign-off include:

  • Adoption of draft criterion for reconfiguration of the health and social care system – a subject on which the recent Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland focused and produced recommendations;

  • Policy statement on the future of GP services and responding to GP-led care;

  • Commencement and implementation of the Mental Capacity Act (2016) and publication of MCA code of practice;

  • Agreement to proceed with the HPV vaccination programme for boys in Northern Ireland in time for September 2019;

  • Amendments to the Pharmaceutical Regulations 1997;

  • Agreement to make regulations to restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to persons over the age of 18;

  • Agreement to draft regulations banning smoking in cars when a person under the age of 18 is present in the vehicle;

  • Consideration of options on legislation to support breastfeeding in public places.

Next week, Stratagem, as part of a new series, will be looking at some of the complex public policy issues that remain elusive. Where are there prospects of change or progress? Will smoking in cars, or e-cigarettes, be next? Which permanent secretary will be the next one to take the initiative on a policy decision? What about the infrastructure projects that are in the pipeline?