The Commons health select committee has promised to investigate claims that more than £30m has been plundered from mental health budgets to bail out deficits in other sectors.

The Commons health select committee has promised to investigate claims that more than£30m has been plundered from mental health budgets to bail out deficits in other sectors.

Committee chair Kevin Barron told HSJ that he and fellow MPs were so concerned about the issue that they would consider it specifically as part of their inquiry into NHS deficits, which will continue when Parliament returns from recess.

He said: 'We will be looking at places where money is being moved away from services to address deficits, and mental health is one of those areas. For too long it's been under-funded and we want to make sure that is not happening again.'

Mr Barron said the report would be delivered by the end of this year or early in 2007.

The committee has taken evidence from mental health charity Rethink which has been running a campaign highlighting areas where mental health budgets are being slashed. Cuts are being reported across England from Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Nottingham, London and Sussex.

Senior campaigns officer Lucy Widenka said the charity's report, published in November last year, estimated that£30m was being taken from mental health services. But she said that estimate was conservative, and that the situation seemed to be worsening.

Ms Widenka said: 'We need to protect mental health services now. Even if there are promises that services that are being cut now but will be opened up at some later time, it's never that easy to reopen services.

'Early intervention services are a key element of NHS policy and it's very worrying when you hear that they might be closing; it goes against government policy to close them,' she added.

Dr Dinesh Bhugra, dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and an honorary consultant psychiatrist at South London and the Maudsley trust, said mental health was being unfairly targeted because of problems in other sectors.

'We are carrying out our work effectively and efficiently; we are in the black financially and suddenly primary care trusts and acute trusts have to balance their books and mental health trusts are being put under so much pressure.

'We have been given a lot more money but a lot of that is not reaching patients.'

A Department of Health spokeswoman said there was 'no evidence to suggest that mental health services are being disproportionately affected by the current funding situation', citing evidence that, in the last financial year, 11 trusts made small cuts, which came to 'only 0.3 per cent of last year's total investment in adult mental health'.

Gloucestershire council fights cuts

Gloucestershire Partnerships trust has recently concluded a consultation on proposals to make over£9.3m savings.

Cheltenham town council has written to health secretary Patricia Hewitt complaining about the package, which means reductions in older people's services on 12 sites and at six sites for adult services.

A final strategy will be presented to the trust board today. A trust spokeswoman said there was always the potential for Gloucestershire county council's overview and scrutiny committee to refer the plans to the secretary of state, 'although we hope it's not going to go that way'.

Hertfordshire: decision limbo loses staff

Hertfordshire Partnership trust, which has run at a surplus for four years, has been asked to contribute over£5m to help pay off debts in local acute trusts.

The trust is planning to achieve this by closing an acute ward, a day unit, the early intervention team and making staff reductions across community mental health teams, as well as in psychology, older people's services and learning disabilities.

In May, Hertfordshire county council's health overview and scrutiny committee rejected the proposals and referred them to the secretary of state for a decision.

The council's chief executive Caroline Tapster told the government it could not back proposals drawn up 'by PCT chief executives not against a background of detailed public health data on relative priorities... [but] to rapidly and radically address the ever-increasing debt'.

Three months on, staff are voting with their feet, leaving at-risk posts. As a result, the trust has already been forced to temporarily close a

22-bed acute admissions unit at St Albans City Hospital. Communications manager Barbara Suggitt said the trust had been forced to close the ward because staff worried about its uncertain future had transferred to other areas of the trust.

She added: 'The early intervention team is still taking patients: we want to try to make it business as usual but it is difficult. We understand there are difficult decisions to make, they are out of our hands, but we hope they come to a decision soon.'

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the referral required a range of complex issues to be investigated and experts to be consulted. 'It is following due process and must be looked at properly.'