Under-fire Samaritans faces anger over advisory board crammed with Tories

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A mental health charity that refused to criticise the government for ignoring links between claimants of out-of-work disability benefits and suicide attempts is facing criticism after it emerged that more than half of its advisory board are influential Conservatives.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed in December that the Department of Health (DH) had failed to highlight claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) as a high-risk group in its national suicide prevention strategy.

DH had failed to act even though its own survey showed that more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said in 2014 that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

But when told about that failure in December, the mental health charity Samaritans – which focuses on suicide prevention and support for those in mental distress, and is itself part-funded by the Department of Health* – refused to criticise the government.

Now mental health system survivors have raised concerns that at least seven of the 11 members of the charity’s advisory board are prominent Conservatives or Conservative supporters, or have close links to the party, including two Tory peers, a current and a former Tory MP, and a leading Tory donor who is married to another Tory peer.

They are particularly alarmed that the newest member of the board is Esther McVey, the new work and pensions secretary, whose appointment to head the Department for Work and Pensions last month caused widespread anger among disabled activists.

McVey appears to have joined the Samaritans advisory board last year, when she was still chair of the British Transport Police Authority (BTPA)**, one of the partners the charity works with to reduce suicides across the rail system.

Many campaigners expressed their alarm and anger through social media this week at McVey’s presence on the advisory board, with many questioning the charity’s judgement and calling on it to end the association.

There was also coverage of her presence on the board in the mainstream, left-wing and local media, and political news websites.

Despite the anger, campaigners have appealed for people in mental distress to continue calling the charity’s helpline if they need support, as its volunteers provide a vital service.

In addition to McVey, other members of the advisory board are the Tory peers Lord Grade and Baroness Wheatcroft; Sir Edward Garnier QC, who until last May was a Conservative MP; and David McDonough, who co-owns the public relations firm Norris McDonough with former Tory minister and London mayoral candidate Steve Norris.

Others include Bill Muirhead, a founding partner of M&C Saatchi, who helped lead the 2010 Conservative general election advertising campaign; and Philip Buscombe, a leading Tory donor and husband of the Conservative peer Baroness Buscombe, who was herself a member of the advisory board until last year.

Another link between the advisory board and the government comes through Jeremy Courtenay-Stamp, a partner with the legal firm Macfarlanes, where justice secretary David Gauke – McVey’s predecessor as work and pensions secretary – previously worked.

Rick Burgess, a spokesman for the user-led campaign group Recovery in the Bin, said the board was full of Tory “party hacks”.

He said: “if the advisory board advises, surely they want a breadth of views and not to be crowded out by Conservatives with little to no mental health expertise.

“Such biased ignorance is lethal, for example their failing to campaign on the increased suicide risk from government welfare reform of ESA and personal independence payment.”

He added: “That they think Esther McVey, a human rights abuser, should be an adviser shows a profound failure of their governance and moral principles.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said it was “like putting Cruella De Vil and her acolytes in charge of the kennels”.

He said: “Are they completely ignorant of McVey’s track record and the devastation inflicted upon disabled people with mental health problems under her leadership? It just beggars belief.”

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the make-up of the Samaritans advisory board was not itself a breach of its rules, but she added: “Trustees have a responsibility to protect their charity’s reputation.

“This includes paying particular consideration to the consequences of working with political parties and their representatives, and being open and transparent about any contact they have.”

The commission’s guidance also says that charities “should consider working with a range of political parties to help ensure public perceptions of neutrality”.

There do not appear to be prominent members of any political party other than the Conservatives on the advisory board.

A Samaritans spokeswoman said its vision was that “fewer people die by suicide” and that it worked “across the political divide to achieve this”.

She said: “Esther McVey joined Samaritans’ advisory board when chair of the British Transport Police Authority, which is one of the partners we work with to reduce suicides in the rail environment.

“The advisory board has no legal or governance role in Samaritans and elects its own chair and members.”

But Samaritans has refused to explain why so many members of its advisory board are members of the Conservative party, and whether that affected its decision not to speak out on the Department of Health’s failure to highlight ESA claimants as being at particularly high risk of attempting suicide.

The spokeswoman said: “Our advisory board was formed by a group of friends of Michael Varah, who died in 2007.

“Michael was the son of Samaritans’ founder, Chad Varah, and his friends wanted to support the charity in an informal way in his memory.

“Our advisory board continues to provide informal support to Samaritans, helping us increase our potential to influence and fundraise.”

Asked whether the charity was concerned that having so many members of one political party on its advisory board might be breaching Charity Commission rules, the spokeswoman said: “We are confident that having an informal group of people, with no legal or governance role, supporting us to ensure that more people can access our services so that we can save more lives, is fully within Charity Commission rules.”

But Burgess said: “The Samaritans are being disingenuous. The board advises, as such it should have a diverse membership. It clearly does not, so its advice will be poor.”

*Now renamed the Department of Health and Social Care

**She resigned as BPTA chair after being selected to fight the Tatton seat for the Tories at the 2017 general election