A senior government adviser has failed to declare freelance work carried out for the insurance giant set to make huge financial gains through the coalition’s incapacity benefit (IB) reforms, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
The adviser failed to declare the work carried out for the insurance company Unum in the register of interests, DNS understands.
The advice given to the government is believed to have included extensive discussions around welfare reform, at a time when the hugely controversial welfare reform bill has been passing through parliament.
Unum has admitted widespread criticisms of its past actions in the US – mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people.
There is no suggestion that the adviser acted improperly on behalf of Unum, but the failure to register the potential conflict of interest over work for such a controversial company will be a huge embarrassment to the government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
A DWP civil servant confirmed to DNS through a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request that the adviser was required as a public appointee to declare any conflicts of interest and that “none have been declared”.
Disabled activists have increasingly been raising concerns about the influence of Unum within the DWP and among MPs and peers.
They are worried about the impact this might have had on the controversial reforms of both coalition and Labour governments, including the introduction of the much-criticised “fitness for work” test, the work capability assessment (WCA).
Following the receipt of some limited information following the FoI request, DNS submitted a series of questions to the adviser, including whether they had worked for Unum or Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out the WCAs on behalf of the DWP.
In a statement sent by text message, the adviser said: “I am afraid that I am not able to give you any more information… than you have already received in the response to your FoI request.”
They added: “However, in a personal capacity I can assure you I have never worked for Atos.
“Again, in a personal capacity I am most concerned about both the form and the quality of the WCA assessment and would be most interested in the results of your researches. I am sorry not to be able to be of more assistance.”
They failed to respond to a text message which asked them to clarify whether they had worked for Unum.
A government official – in response to an FoI request by DNS – said that public appointees in similar roles were “required to declare an interest in companies that could cause a conflict of interest with their… role”, and that the adviser had “not declared an interest in Unum”.
DNS understands that the adviser has carried out freelance work for Unum on at least one occasion since their public appointment.
DWP’s press office has failed to answer any questions about the adviser and the Unum links since first being approached more than a week ago by DNS. The FoI was submitted by DNS on 2 December 2011.
John Letizia, Unum’s head of public affairs, said it was for the adviser to answer any questions about their appointment “and not for Unum to comment”.
Letizia refused to confirm whether the adviser had worked on a freelance basis for Unum.
DNS revealed evidence last year that strongly suggested that Unum has attempted to influence incapacity benefit reform, particularly under the Labour government.
Unum has denied doing so and that it stands to gain from the reforms, even though it launched a major media campaign last year just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through the new, stricter test, the WCA.
26 January 2012