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14 July 2022

The Policy Ask with Akiko Hart: “The National Disability Strategy is not fit for purpose”

The CEO of the mental health charity, National Survivor User Network, on human rights, discrimination and the benefits system.

By Spotlight

Akiko Hart is the CEO of the National Survivor User Network (NSUN), a UK charity led by and for people who live with mental ill-health, distress and trauma. Hart is also the chair of the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis (ISPS UK), and sits on the advisory board of the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Durham. You can follow her on Twitter @AkikoMHart.  

How do you start your working day?   

I need alone time to recharge, but I struggle to get it these days. I get up early so I can have that time by myself. I really value it: everyone else is still asleep, I’m not getting emails, it’s quiet. I sit with my coffee and plan my day and catch up with the news. If I’m lucky, I get one piece of work done before the children get up. 

What has been your career high?  

I love what I’m doing at the moment, as the CEO of NSUN. Working with partners to shift power and resource in the mental health sector feels exciting and generative. Earlier this year, we secured the funding to host Synergi, a large and ambitious three-year programme of work on racial justice and mental health. That felt significant: this work is so important to me, and there is much that needs to be done.  

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?   

For a year, I held down two jobs: one in Brussels and one in London. The Brussels job, where I was director of Mental Health Europe, involved a lot of travelling around the EU. In many ways, it was amazing, but it also came at a personal cost to me and my family. I also got into the habit of working really, really long hours, and that has taken a while to unpick. 

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

It can be such a difficult time. It can feel so intense, competitive and overwhelming, and you are having to make consequential decisions about your life when you may not know what you want or what that looks like. I muddled through my twenties and was deeply unhappy at work at various points. And in hindsight, that helped me figure out the things that were important to me at work. But I don’t want to sugar-coat it: it was hard. I think having a lot of friends in similar positions helped me navigate it. 

Which political figure inspires you?   

I’m not sure I have a hero, as such. People and their legacies are complicated. I think raising individuals up is something we do, but it can also be harmful to the people in question. 

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

The Department of Health and Social Care has recently laid a statutory instrument to prevent local authorities from using cost-of-living payments as income against which they can levy charges for social care users. This should never have been in doubt, but it’s good that it’s been confirmed. 

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And what policy should the UK government ditch?   

The National Disability Strategy is not fit for purpose and does not tackle the poverty, discrimination and exclusion disabled people face. Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that both the botched consultation which underpinned it, and the strategy itself, were unlawful. The government is waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeal on whether it will be allowed to appeal. 

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?  

I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it, but the draft Mental Health Bill has recently been published for pre-legislative scrutiny. This is the latest point in a large body of work on reforming mental health legislation. There are some positive elements in there, but a lot is contingent on spending, and, of course, practice on the ground. 

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

I think the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a really powerful human rights instrument. It’s not without its complexities, especially in relation to mental health, but it invites us to reflect deeply on legal personhood, and resist false binaries, between, for example, the right to health and the right to liberty. 

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

This is policy, not legislation, but it’s urgent: an uplift of at least the current rate of inflation to all benefit claimants, including legacy benefit claimants, who were not included in the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift during the Covid pandemic. This disproportionately affected disabled people, including people who live with mental ill-health or distress. 

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[Read more: The Policy Ask with Jabeer Butt: “Unless you have a safe place to live, everything else falls apart”]