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23 June 2022

The Policy Ask with Paul Farmer: “Cutting welfare support is counter-productive and punitive”

The chief executive of Mind on benefits sanctions, work-life balance, and reforming the Mental Health Act.

By Spotlight

Paul Farmer is chief executive at mental health charity Mind. After 16 years in the job, he will step down this October to take on the role of chief executive at Age UK. He is also chair of NHS England’s Mental Health Independent Advisory and Oversight Group, a consortium of healthcare leaders and experts overseeing the NHS’s mental health long-term plan in England. He co-authored Thriving at Work, an independent review into workplace mental health for the government, and is an honorary fellow at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In 2016, he was awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours.

How do you start your working day?

At 6.30am with the Today Programme, breakfast with The Guardian (mine may be the only household that still gets a paper delivered), and in these hybrid days, either a walk or run in the park, back to the home office, or a trip on the new Elizabeth Line (well worth the wait) to our office in Stratford.

What has been your career high? 

I chaired the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, which secured an extra £1bn a year from government, helping an additional one million people who experience mental health problems. I’m also immensely proud of Mind’s involvement with the Time to Change campaign, which led the way in shifting public attitudes thanks to the incredible voices of people who have experienced mental health problems themselves. They have formed the bedrock of change over the last ten years.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Resigning from a government group on welfare support; never an easy choice and it caused shock waves. But you can’t sit inside a group knowing that its work was being compromised. Separately, every leader found Covid incredibly challenging, especially when we faced a combination of declining donations and rising demand. Thankfully, the support for Mind was incredible, but the demand just keeps on rising.

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be? 

Keep a constant eye on your work/life balance because you never know what’s around the corner. I will always regret not spending more time with my partner, Claire, before she became ill and passed away with cancer.

Which political figure inspires you?

I’ve worked with many politicians – some good, others less so. Most want to make a difference and have to put up with terrible and unacceptable abuse nowadays. But for me, Norman Lamb stands out in mental health. He always spoke out about it, both personally and professionally. And as a minister for mental health, he made a real difference. Oh, and he mortgaged his house so his son could be Tinchy Stryder’s promoter…

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

There were two aspects of lockdown which were right – firstly, the time we had for physical activity for our physical and mental health. So many people told us it was a lifesaver. Secondly, the furlough scheme was the right policy at the right time.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

We have fought long and hard to eliminate welfare sanctions – cutting people’s support when they are unable to do the things that are asked of them. We’ve heard from people who missed Jobcentre appointments because they were in hospital and had their income slashed as a result, for example. Sanctions are counter-productive and punitive, based on faulty assumptions around lacking motivation, especially for disabled people who are often already vulnerable. For people with mental health problems, they create even more anxiety and are less likely to help people find work, rather than more.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

In Australia, the government introduced a set of youth hubs called Headstart to support young people’s mental health. Post-pandemic, we now know that the number of young people with mental health problems has grown from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2021. Mental health problems are easier and cheaper to treat the sooner people access support. These hubs could make all the difference to young people and prevent a lost generation, so we’re calling on the UK government to fund a network of early intervention hubs across England for anyone aged 11 to 25, so they can access support in a non-clinical setting without the need for an appointment or referral.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

A new Mental Health Act, which addresses and dismantles the systemic racism faced by people when they are detained under section and at their most unwell. Healthcare professionals are over four times more likely to section black people than white people and are over four times more likely to restrain or hold black people in isolation while in hospital. In 2020-21, 3,436 people were subject to face-down or “prone” restraint, which is the most dangerous and life-threatening form of restraint. Implementing the long-awaited Mental Health Act reforms was in the Queen’s Speech, so it’s an achievable ambition and one that mustn’t be delayed any longer.

Read more: The Policy Ask with Ellie Mae O’Hagan: “The toughest work is not necessarily done by those at the top”

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