The standard mental health contract has had a dismal reception from NHS managers. They have complained it lacks substance and makes only 'minor adaptations' to the acute contract.

The Department of Health has brought out the long awaited contract, which comes into effect from next April on an interim basis until next year, to end block contracts and improve the quality of mental health commissioning.

Mental Health Network director Steve Shrubb said: "It took a long time for the contract work to pick up momentum. They [the DH] ran out of time. They probably underestimated the complexity of mental health.

"They thought that they could produce a mental health contract by making some minor adaptations to the acute contract."

He attacked it for focusing too heavily on adults of working age, at the expense of children and adolescents, people with learning difficulties and older patients. It also fails to reflect the integrated nature of mental healthcare by not sufficiently covering social services, he said.

Quality improvement requirement

However, Mr Shrubb was pleased the contract makes it mandatory for commissioners to have a quality improvement plan with providers and gives managers some flexibility over how it should be applied locally. More details are expected in guidance due this week.

Mr Shrubb's words echo a warning from Primary Care Trust Network director David Stout in October.

In a letter to Bob Ricketts, DH director of system management and new enterprise, Mr Stout had said the contract did not take account of important elements, in particular "the integrated nature of health and social care in the mental health sector".

More demanding

Cumbria Partnership foundation trust chief executive Stephen Dalton said it was "more comprehensive and probably more demanding" than other legally binding mental health contracts. Its success would depend on trusts' relationship with commissioners, he said.

A DH spokesperson said: "The interim mental health contract includes a requirement, not found in the acute contract, to develop a local quality and safety improvement plan. It also includes mental health specific quality standards."