Disabled activists have called for a boycott of the mental health charity Mind, and called on its chief executive to quit, after one of its managers agreed to spend a year working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
They say the move by policy and campaigns manager Tom Pollard is just the latest sign of the close relationship between the charity and DWP on issues around welfare reform.
They believe the charity has betrayed mental health service-users by failing to speak out strongly enough on benefit claimants who have been harmed, or even died, as a result of DWP’s much-criticised “fitness for work” test, the work capability assessment (WCA).
Pollard will be working with DWP on secondment as a senior policy adviser, working on areas such as the government’s upcoming green paper on employment support for disabled people, the WCA and support in jobcentres.
Activists point out that Mind made no mention of welfare reform, sanctions, or benefit-related deaths in its latest five-year strategy, and that the government’s Mental Health Taskforce, led by Mind’s chief executive, Paul Farmer, concluded in its report that employment was “vital to health and should be recognised as a health outcome”, when many campaigners – and professionals – warn that this is not the case for all mental health service-users.
They say Farmer was rewarded for his “collusion” with DWP by being awarded a CBE in the last new year’s honours list.
There is also continuing anger from the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) at Mind’s decision to pull out of a high-profile and long-running court case that was aimed at forcing ministers to make the WCA safer for people with mental health conditions.
Ministers were originally told by a coroner as far back as May 2010 that there was a risk of further deaths if they did not ensure that further medical evidence was obtained for all employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants with mental health conditions, following the suicide of Stephen Carré.
But MHRN is still waiting for DWP to carry out a pilot project to test ways to collect this further medical evidence, despite ministers promising a tribunal they would do so in March 2015, following a lengthy judicial review case taken by MHRN.
Denise McKenna, co-founder of MHRN, said Mind was “a disgrace”, and had only pulled out of involvement with the court case because it wanted to secure back-to-work contracts from DWP.
She said: “MHRN won’t be leaving things at this, we want change at the very top of national Mind and will be demanding Farmer’s resignation.
“He was rewarded with a CBE for colluding with the Tories.”
She wrote to Farmer after hearing of Pollard’s secondment, telling him: “On looking at your strategy for the next five years we see that there is no mention of the devastating welfare reforms that are destroying the lives of many people with mental health problems.
“Are we to take it that you are blissfully unaware of the misery and devastation being visited upon people who live with mental distress?”
She added: “MHRN cannot accept the role that Mind is playing in helping the government push through policies that are deeply damaging to the people you claim to represent.
“We do not recognise you as an ally of people who live with mental health problems and would like to hear what plans you have to redeem yourself in our eyes.”
Paula Peters, a member of both MHRN and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said Pollard’s secondment was a “despicable, outrageous move”.
She called for a boycott of Mind shops, events and donations, and for Farmer to resign.
She said: “We are furious at the callous disregard for people in mental distress.
“They have been silent while people in mental distress have taken their own lives over being found fit to work due to the WCA, left destitute after being sanctioned in the work-related activity group of ESA, or sanctioned on jobseeker’s allowance.”
She added: “They are just as guilty as this government by their silence over the tragic human cost of the welfare reforms and colluding with the government, which will cause more distress and harm.
“This is a warning to any charity that colludes with the government: you’re next!”
Peters said that activists would be preparing a “welcome party” for Pollard that would take place at DWP’s offices on the day he starts his new job, 31 October.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said Pollard’s secondment was “a poisoned chalice”.
She said: “Knowing how charities work for their own benefit and not for the benefit of those they purport to represent, it comes as no surprise that Tom Pollard is willing to be seconded to DWP, but he should be aware that any policies he advises on will be thoroughly scrutinized by grassroots campaigners, and he will be held to account by them.”
Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns for Mind, said Pollard would be “advising on the most appropriate and effective ways to support and engage with people with mental health problems across a range of policy issues”, and that his “longstanding work on these issues gives him the expertise to advise the DWP”.
She said: “We have long been calling for greater mental health expertise within the department.
“This is a great opportunity to help ensure that these policies are as supportive and effective as possible for people with mental health problems.”
She said that Mind was “politically-neutral” and claimed that it had “continued to push the DWP to reform the WCA through meetings with MPs and civil servants” and through campaign and media work, and added: “We share the Mental Health Resistance Network’s disappointment and frustration at the lack of progress on the specific points covered by the judicial review.
“However, we believe that the case played a vital role in helping to discredit the WCA and we are calling for a commitment to reforming the system in the upcoming green paper.”
Nash added: “Mind will continue to campaign independently and outspokenly for a benefits and welfare system that works for people with mental health problems, including an overhaul of fitness for work tests and a focus on support rather than sanctions.
“We have supported many people to share their stories in the media of the impact welfare reforms have had on them, including individuals who have lost loved ones due to a number of factors, including cuts to their benefits, and will continue to prioritise this for the next 12 months, and beyond.”
She said the charity was “incredibly proud” of Farmer’s CBE for his services to mental health with Mind, and through previous jobs at Rethink and Samaritans, and that he was “committed to achieving real change so that people with mental health problems always get the respect and support that they deserve”.
Nash said the taskforce’s report was based on input from more than 20,000 people who live with a mental health problem or work in the mental health sector, and that “people with mental health problems tell us that appropriate and supportive employment can improve their mental health, while unemployment, debt and problems with benefits can all worsen it”.
She said that campaigning on welfare reform would “continue to be a huge part of what we do” and was covered in the five-year strategy through its commitment to act on “disability, social justice, housing and homelessness”.
She appealed for activists not to take the “extreme action” of boycotting Mind, and added: “People who have raised concerns, such as the Mental Health Resistance Network, have been encouraged to have an open dialogue on these issues with Mind.”