The introduction of waiting time standards for mental healthcare “must happen from next year”, the care services minister has told HSJ.

Norman Lamb was speaking ahead of the publication of interim guidance by NHS England for the introduction of choice of provider in mental health.

The minister said choice, waiting time standards and a move to tariff-based payments system from block contracts would improve focus and funding for the sector.

“The imbalance [between physical and mental health] completely drives where money goes in the NHS. Both the payment systems and access waiting standards for mental are critical,” he added.

Although NHS England was instructed in a government mandate to NHS England in 2014-15 to develop a range of “costed options” for waiting time standards in mental health for April next year, no detailed plans have yet been released.

The mandate urged the organisation to draw up a “phased approach” to introducing waiting time standards in the sector.

The health service already works to high profile, strictly enforced, waiting time standards for most non-mental health planned treatment.

Mr Lamb told HSJ: “The mandate is very clear – there is legal force behind the mandate. In my perspective it [waiting standards] must happen from next year.

“The mandate also is clear that I recognised there is a phasing – you don’t achieve the end position straight away. We have to move on access and waiting standards from 2015-16.”

Legal rights to choice were extended to most mental health care at the beginning of last month. The guidance, published today, sets out how the NHS will meet them.

The guidance says a move towards a tariff-type system will be required to support greater choice.

It also recommends that clinical commissioning groups should make individual contractual arrangements if referrals are requested in areas outside of their commissioning area.

Martin McShane, director for long term conditions at NHS England said block contracts were “untenable” in light of the need for greater choice in mental health.

He indicated the organisation was still trying to get to grips with how waiting times standards would work in mental health. “I would like to understand how [waiting times] work for something like mental health, in the same way that we still need to do a lot of work on long term condition management.”