The Office for Disability Issues (ODI) has angered disabled activists after stating that its own disability advisers do not have to notify civil servants if they work for the company set to make millions from incapacity benefit reform.
In a response provided under the Freedom of Information Act, ODI claimed there was no conflict of interest involved in a member of Equality 2025 – the government’s high-level advisory body of disabled people – working for the insurance giant Unum.
Maria Miller, the Conservative minister for disabled people, this week refused to say whether she was aware of this response or endorsed the ODI position.
Unum is the UK’s largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI), and tougher welfare rules – such as those replacing incapacity benefit with the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – could persuade more people to take out IPI, boosting Unum’s profits.
Equality 2025 has played a major part in advising the government on its controversial welfare reform bill, which this week became law after receiving royal assent and will make it even harder to claim ESA.
Disability News Service had asked ODI whether it was aware that Dr Rachel Perkins ran a half-day training event in late 2010 for nurses and occupational therapists employed by Unum, and that she had admitted failing to declare this paid work in the Equality 2025 register of interests.
The event took place several months after Perkins was appointed to the body in April 2010, but before she became its chair in April 2011.
There is no suggestion that Perkins has acted improperly on behalf of Unum, but her actions again highlight serious concerns about Unum’s links to parliament and the government.
Disabled activist Phil Lockwood said the government’s position that there was no conflict of interest in a member of Equality 2025 “carrying out work for a company that is set to make millions out of welfare reform” was “totally abhorrent”, and added: “It just beggars belief.”
Mo Stewart, the disabled activist who has done most to highlight concerns about Unum, said: “I totally challenge ODI’s claim that there is no conflict of interest when someone involved with a government disability advisory body accepts paid work from a company that influenced the very welfare reforms from which it will inevitably profit.”
An ODI spokeswoman said that as Equality 2025 membership was not a full-time role, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “does not therefore consider it unreasonable for members to participate in other paid activities connected with disability”.
She said ODI – part of DWP – was aware that Perkins had delivered a training session to Unum staff, but said that the company “has no financial or commercial links” with DWP.
She added: “Dr Perkins was entitled to share her disability insight and expertise with such a company and the department does not consider that this activity represented a perceived or actual conflict of interest in relation to her role as a member of Equality 2025.”
Perkins says she has never spoken to anybody from Unum about welfare reform and has turned down work with other organisations because she considers it a conflict of interests with her Equality 2025 position.
Mounting evidence suggests Unum has been trying to influence government policy on incapacity benefit reform for nearly two decades, claims the company has repeatedly denied.
Last year, Unum launched a major media campaign to promote the need for IPI just as the coalition began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing claimants of incapacity benefit through a new, stricter test, the work capability assessment.
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.
When asked whether Miller was aware of and endorsed ODI’s Freedom of Information Act response, a DWP spokeswoman said: “DWP does not wish to comment any further on this matter.”
8 March 2012