19 September 2006
A report which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims is 'independent' and which shows that 'being out of work is bad for both mind and body' was written by an academic who has close links both with scandal hit American employment insurance giant UnumProvident and with the DWP.

It's findings were, however, uncritically reproduced by two major welfare benefits websites.

Waddell's Wonder Diet?
Professor Gordon Waddell conducted a review of more than 400 pieces of scientific evidence in the course of compiling his report Is work good for your health and well-being? He concluded that being out of work causes increased rates of mental health problems as well as an increased risk of suicide, disability and obesity. According to the DWP, however, he also discovered that "this can be reversed - when people return to work from unemployment their health improves by as much as unemployment damages it." (This may be the first time that employment has been suggested as an alternative to dieting and does make this author wonder how a period of record employment has managed to coincide with record levels of obesity. Perhaps people simply aren't working long or hard enough?)

The report also claims that there is a lack of understanding amongst healthcare professionals of the benefits of work. A series of initiatives is thus being planned by the government to help educate GPs to understand the long-term consequences of signing people off sick and the role they can play in helping their patients remain in, or return to, work.

Professor Waddell's findings caused a delighted DWP Minister, Lord Hunt to enthuse that:

'This review reinforces our commitment to helping more people into work, improving the health of working age people and tackling the root causes of ill health."

Waddell's Signs
What the DWP press release, or the resulting pieces even on such specialist websites as Disability Alliance and Rightsnet, failed to mention, however, was the Professor's own background.

Professor Waddell is well known to many welfare rights workers. Waddell's Signs are used by DWP doctors to identify allegedly malingering claimants who are assumed to be exaggerating their low back problems. Professor Waddell also has a long history of working with Professor Mansell Aylward CB, former Chief Scientist at the DWP and now Chair of the UnumProvident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research. The primary aim of the Centre is to reduce the number of people signed off sick by GPs, to the financial benefit of both the DWP and UnumProvident. So close is the relationship between the two professors, that not only is Professor Waddell an Honorary Professor at Professor Aylward's Centre, but they have even written books together.

The most recent of these is The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits. In January of this year UnumProvident hosted the launch of the book which, in an uncanny echo of government policy, concludes that up to one million incapacity benefit recipients could potentially return to work. As well as changes to the incapacity benefit system, the book also proposes "a whole new approach to the overriding issue of workplace absence arising from sickness and disability". Which might be quite handy if, like UnumProvident, you lose profits when people go sick.

The press release for the book launch explained that:

"UnumProvident has long campaigned for reforms of the Incapacity Benefit system and welcomed the proposals outlined in the recent IB Green Paper."

What the press release didn't mention is that in the United States a scandal hit UnumProvident has already paid $15 million to compensate people it allegedly carried out improper medical assessments on, and has agreed to reopen another 215,000 claims.

Not everyone may find it reassuring that an American insurance company currently facing such massive claims for unfair medical assessments has been actively campaigning to change the British benefits system in a way which is to its financial advantage. Nor will everyone be convinced that Professor Waddell is 'independent' in the way that they understand that word. And finally, not everyone will find it encouraging that organisations such as Disability Alliance and Rightsnet are happy to uncritically reproduce extracts from a DWP press release as if it were the unvarnished truth.

Rightsnet members will find the story in the News section, dated September 12th.

You can read the paragraph and link on Disability Alliance's site.


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