The appointment of Mind’s chief executive to head an employment review for the prime minister has raised fresh concerns among disabled activists about the mental health charity’s closeness to the government.
Prime minister Theresa May announced this week that Paul Farmer and the former chair of banking giant HBOS Lord [Dennis] Stevenson would head a review of mental health in the workplace, which will include a review of discrimination laws.
It was one of a series of measures that May said – in a speech to the Charity Commission’s annual meeting – were aimed at dealing with the “burning injustice” of mental health.
The government said the review would look at “how best to ensure employees with mental health problems are enabled to thrive in the workplace and perform at their best”, including “promoting best practice and learning from trailblazer employers, as well as offering tools to organisations, whatever size they are, to assist with employee well-being and mental health”.
The review – which will be overseen by Number 10 and not the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – will also make recommendations on combating the workplace discrimination faced by employees with mental health conditions.
But Farmer’s appointment comes only two months after he was caught lying to mental health activists outside Mind’s head office in east London (pictured) about the charity’s interest in seeking DWP contracts under its new Work and Health Programme.
Farmer told protesters on 31 October that the charity had “no contracts with DWP” and that he was “not interested in future contracts at this stage”, but a disgruntled employee later leaked internal documents showing that Mind was applying to join a DWP framework that would allow it to bid for contracts.
The protest had been sparked by the decision of the charity’s policy and campaigns manager Tom Pollard to join DWP on secondment as a senior policy adviser.
Farmer also led the government’s Mental Health Taskforce, which 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.
Among those critical of Farmer’s latest government appointment was Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives, who said the government had again made a key policy announcement without any “major new funding or listening to the concerns of the people most affected”.
He told Disability News Service: “Particularly concerning is the close role that Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, historically a campaigning organisation for mental health service-users/survivors, plays in these developments.
“Nothing serious yet being done about the damage being done to mental health service users by so-called welfare reform.
“No serious improvement likely to improve the situation of BAME mental health service users.
“An even greater gap opening up between government and some of the most marginalised people in society, while the charities that are meant to be speaking up for them are compromised by their closeness to a government that continues to undermine the life chances of mental health service users/survivors.”
Paula Peters, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts and a member of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said Farmer’s decision to lead the review was “absolutely deplorable”.
She said Mind was working “hand in glove” with a government whose policies were “putting mental health service-users in distress”.
She added: “Mind don’t represent people in mental distress at all.”
MHRN is campaigning to persuade local Mind charities to disaffiliate from the national charity over its links with DWP.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said he was “utterly appalled” to see Farmer leading the review, while Alisdair Cameron, team leader of the Newcastle mental health service-user organisation Launchpad, asked on Twitter: “Paul, when did Mind become an arm’s-length branch of Govt?”
Mind stressed that neither the charity nor Farmer were being paid for his work on the review, and that it had been commissioned by Number 10 and not DWP.
A Mind spokeswoman said: “This is an independent review that aims to highlight what employers are doing to promote workplace wellbeing and to share best practice.
“Mind has worked with employers over many years to improve mental health in the workplace and Paul’s involvement in this review is an opportunity to share our expertise and contribute what we know about what works.
“Mind is a politically-neutral charitable organisation that campaigns and lobbies government on issues affecting the people we represent – Paul’s involvement in this review in no way compromises this.”