A disabled senior government adviser has admitted failing to tell civil servants about freelance work she carried out for an insurance giant that is set to make millions from the coalition’s incapacity benefit (IB) reforms.
Dr Rachel Perkins, chair of the government’s Equality 2025 high-level advisory body of disabled people, ran a half-day training event in late 2010 for nurses and occupational therapists employed by the US company Unum.
But she has so far failed to declare this paid work in the Equality 2025 register of interests, even though the event took place several months after she was appointed to the body, although before she became its chair in March 2011.
There is no suggestion that Perkins has acted improperly on behalf of Unum, but the revelations are likely to raise questions about her judgement, and again highlight serious concerns about Unum’s links to parliament, government and the civil service.
Unum is the UK’s largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI), and tougher welfare rules – such as those replacing incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance (ESA) – could persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting Unum’s profits.
Perkins’ admission that she has carried out work for Unum came as the government’s highly controversial welfare reform bill was completing its final parliamentary stages. Equality 2025 has played a major role in advising the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on its welfare reforms.
Disabled activists have raised repeated concerns about Unum’s influence on the welfare reforms of both coalition and Labour governments, including the introduction of the much-criticised “fitness for work” test, the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for ESA.
Unum has admitted there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US, mainly over its refusal to pay out on large numbers of genuine insurance claims by disabled people.
Perkins told Disability News Service this week that the training session – which focused on helping people with bipolar disorder return to work – was the only time she has worked for Unum, and was unconnected with the subject of welfare reform.
She said: “I wasn’t aware that doing training on mental health and employment was a conflict of interests.”
She added: “I have never worked with Unum [on welfare reform]or spoken to anybody from Unum about welfare reform.”
She also stressed that she had been unaware of Unum’s troubling history in the US.
And she made it clear that she regularly seeks advice from civil servants on each piece of freelance work she is offered, and has been particularly selective about taking on work since she became chair of Equality 2025.
But she said: “Retrospectively I will do what I do at the moment: I will check with officials whether they consider it to be a conflict of interests. I have turned down work because I considered it a conflict of interests.”
Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has done most to raise concerns about Unum’s influence, said: “Unum remains one of the most discredited insurance giants in the world and planned long ago to reap the rewards of these benefit cuts.
“With their mass marketing on commercial TV, Unum continues to benefit from the welfare reform measures that they helped to influence and it is totally unacceptable that any government adviser should fail to declare an interest with this diabolical corporate giant.”
The DWP has refused to comment on Perkins’ failure to register her Unum work as a potential conflict of interests with her Equality 2025 role.
DNS revealed evidence last year that strongly suggested that Unum has attempted to influence incapacity benefit reform over the last decade, 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.
2 February 2012