Disabled activists have called on the charity Mind to explain how seconding a senior member of staff to work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over the last year has affected mental health service-users.
In an open letter to the charity’s chief executive, Paul Farmer, the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) raises fresh concerns about Mind’s closeness to DWP, and the impact this has had on its willingness to criticise government policy.
Mind’s decision to allow its policy and campaigns manager Tom Pollard to join DWP on secondment as a senior policy adviser sparked a protest outside the charity’s headquarters in east London in October 2016.
MHRN, which helped organise the protest, says in the letter that it is keen to discover “what came out of the secondment, and how it might impact on us”.
It also asks Farmer how the secondment helped alleviate the distress caused to disabled people by cuts to disability benefits.
The letter adds: “We would be interested to know if Mr Pollard found any of the DWP plans potentially harmful to people in mental distress and, if so, how he has intervened on our behalf.”
The letter points out that Farmer was found to have lied to service-users and other disabled activists who took part in the protest about his charity’s close links with DWP.
When Farmer left the building to speak to the protesters (pictured), he told them the charity had “no contracts with DWP” and that he was “not interested in future contracts at this stage”.
But after the protest, a disgruntled member of Mind staff leaked details that showed the charity was applying to join a DWP framework that would allow it to bid for employment and health-related contracts, each of which could be worth between £2 million and £30 million a year.
The leaked information also suggested that Mind had taken measures to avoid being named publicly, allowing it to dodge the potential “reputational risk” of bidding jointly for a contract with a controversial partner.
DWP has so far refused to publish the names of the organisations acting as the main sub-contractors under the Work and Health Programme, even though the scheme went live last week (see separate story).
The MHRN letter adds: “We believe that any role as advocate for people in mental distress has been compromised by governmental outsourcing of public services to charities, which requires such charities to supress any negative comment on government ministers.
“Now that the government has announced they will be pushing more people with mental health problems into work, can you please tell us to what extent Mind will be working further with the DWP to progress the government’s political agenda?”
The letter concludes: “We wonder if Mind only speaks on behalf of people with mental health issues who are well enough to work, or perhaps you are of the same view as the government; that no one is unable to work due to mental distress.
“Please can you clarify your position on this?”
A Mind spokeswoman said in a statement: “We want to assure the members of the Mental Health Resistance Network that we campaign passionately and independently for a better benefits system that works for those of us living with mental health problems.
“We will look into the many important issues that they have raised in their letter and respond in due course.”
She said later that Pollard’s secondment was due to end in April and had been extended to allow him to “complete work on a number of projects that were delayed because of the general election and subsequent changes in the ministerial team.
“As we have said before, we have no plans to bid or tender for back-to-work contracts from [DWP] that would include any element of mandation or sanction, an approach we believe to be cruel, inappropriate and ineffective.”
But the charity later appeared to suggest that some of its local branches are involved in sub-contracting under the WHP.
A Mind spokeswoman said: “Because the Work and Health Programme contract generally has elements of mandation, we decided Mind couldn’t be involved and sent a briefing to all local Minds detailing why.
“At a national level we won’t be getting involved in the contract or any sub-contracting and we have had very positive feedback from local Minds about our decision.”
But she said there was “no reason why a local Mind should avoid supporting people on the Work and Health Programme provided their participation in whatever courses or therapies we offer is completely voluntary”.
A spokeswoman added: “We are all very clear that if there is any suggestion that accessing a local Mind service is mandatory then we don’t want to be anywhere near it.”