Social media should be made to pay - Alex Cole-Hamilton

The Lib Dems would treble the digital services taxThe Lib Dems would treble the digital services tax
The Lib Dems would treble the digital services tax
Earlier this week, I was on a train in central Scotland. As it rolled into the platform at Glasgow Central, I noticed these huge pairs of calloused hands painted on the brick wall adjacent to the track; they were reaching out to each other but never quite touching. Beside them were some letters printed in clear, black font – Samaritans – and the number to call.

The whole context made you pause. Against its backdrop, a ferocious ebb and flow of bodies fought with ticket barriers and scrambled into the bustle of the day ahead.

I don’t think we can be in any doubt that we are experiencing a mental health crisis in this country. Thousands of children and adults regularly wait more than a year for mental health treatment, all while the number of those dying by suicide continues to rise.

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Despite this, the SNP have concentrated so many of their cutbacks on mental health spend. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Scottish Government had made a horrific £80 million real terms reduction to the mental health budget.

These cuts trickle down to recruitment and staff. In Scotland, the number of people completing mental health first aid training has fallen to just 5,000, down a third when compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Despite all the psychological challenges of lockdown, the Scottish Government decided to pause training for mental health first aiders during the pandemic. These courses enable people to learn to recognise common symptoms of mental ill health among their workmates and to direct people to key resources to help them. It’s no substitute for professionally trained counsellors but it’s a useful addition and the type of early intervention that can help prevent a bad situation from developing into something worse.

The decision to pause this training contrasts sharply with the situation in England, where the NHS switched to operating as a virtual classroom course, managing to recruit many more mental health first aiders as a result.

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All too often, it seems ministers file mental health under the nice-to-say category, brandishing it as a political tool that can make them look a little cuddlier but never making their gestures amount to serious government action.

There is a real danger here. Lives lost, families devastated, communities ruined. Employers losing hundreds of thousands of days to absences caused by anxiety and depression. These are the true consequences of the mental health crisis, so it’s time our governments used the many and various tools at their disposal to address it.

Social media has a big part to play in all of this. One survey found that 97 per cent of children aged 12 and up are now on social media for hours every day. When they are telling us it is doing them harm (and they are) we should listen. Liberal Democrats believe that companies like Meta and X should be made to pay for how we tackle the harms their content has caused.

The Digital Services Tax is paid by the biggest social media sites – Liberal Democrats would treble that tax to raise £1.5 billion in the UK next year alone. That could unlock up to £150 million for the Scottish budget, the sort of money that would allow us to boost the number of mental health professionals in schools and in GP surgeries across the country, cutting waiting times in the process. It would also enable us to ensure that many more people are able to take advantage of the mental health first aider programme.

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While our mental health crisis is widely understood and often thoughtfully articulated, it is high time that the solution was as well. This comes down to money and staff. Forcing social media companies to pay up is a route to both.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats