The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the three main political parties are refusing to say how often ministers have met with an insurance company set to make huge financial gains from incapacity benefit reform.
Disability News Service (DNS) submitted a request to the DWP under the Freedom of Information Act to ask how many meetings there had been between executives of Unum and government ministers since 2001.
But DWP officials claim there is no “central database” of such meetings and therefore it would be too expensive to find out how often coalition and Labour ministers had met with Unum over the last 10 years.
They say that producing such information would mean contacting “approximately 100,000 officials who are employed by the Department of Work and Pensions, as well as all ministers and special advisers, to find details of meetings that could relate to your enquiry”.
Records of ministerial meetings with outside organisations have only been published on the DWP website since October 2009.
Last October, Unum, the UK’s largest provider of “income protection insurance” (IPI), denied that it had attempted to influence government policy on welfare reform.
Campaigners believe that tougher welfare rules – particularly those that replaced incapacity benefit (IB) with the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – will persuade more people to take out IPI, and so boost Unum’s profits.
Anger over IB reform has grown over the last 18 months, with claims that the coalition’s changes – which are even harsher than those introduced by the Labour government – are merely a cover for cuts to welfare spending and are plunging tens of thousands of disabled people further into poverty and distress.
The disabled activist who has done most to raise concerns about the suitability of Unum to be advising the government and its influence within the DWP is Mo Stewart, a retired healthcare professional and veteran of the Women’s Royal Air Force.
She said: “Given the diabolical reputation of this company in America, it is a huge concern that the UK government would take advice from such a discredited insurance company as Unum, and someone should surely be asking why this corporate giant has had such an influence within the DWP since 1994.”
Unum admits there has been widespread criticism of its past actions in the US – mainly over its refusal to pay out on genuine insurance claims by disabled people – but claims that in the UK it takes its “obligations and duties for treating customers very, very seriously”.
Stewart said the government’s “resistance” to providing the information requested by DNS was “nothing but an excuse” and that DWP clearly “cannot risk confirming information that’s already widely known, that they willingly consult with this discredited market leader in IPI”.
Unum has denied that it stands to gain from the reforms, even though it launched a major media campaign last year just as the coalition government began a three-year programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing IB claimants through a new, stricter test, the work capability assessment.
But a detailed memo later emerged, which was submitted to the Commons work and pensions committee in 2002 and was written by Joanne Hindle, Unum’s corporate services director.
In the memo, Unum called for fundamental reform of the welfare system, while it said the government “must ensure both that work always pays more than benefits, and more importantly that it is clearly seen to do so”.
The memo included proposals with a strong resemblance to reforms introduced several years later by the Labour government, when it replaced IB with ESA, and it stated that Unum was “actively engaged” with the government on sharing best practice in returning disabled people to work.
Unum has denied working “to influence the government to reduce welfare benefits” or “on the design of the reforms to the welfare state”.
This week, a Unum spokesman said: “Thank you for contacting us with your question, however we have nothing to add to our last statement.”
A Conservative spokeswoman declined to comment, as did the Liberal Democrats.
A Labour spokeswoman said: “A register of minister’s meetings kept by the DWP is a matter for that department. Labour policy on welfare reform now, as it was in government, is driven by a belief in a fair welfare system that makes work pay.”
A DWP spokeswoman declined to comment on its refusal to provide information about ministerial meetings with Unum.
5 January 2012