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Mr. Geoffrey Robinson: I take the point that my right hon. Friend will not enter into the particulars of the person who has been mentioned. However, I am sure that the hon. Member for Guildford would join me in asking my right hon. Friend to undertake to draw to the attention of the Post Office chairmana man whom we all know personallywhat happened and ask him for his personal response. I know that the hon. Member for Guildford has tried to approach him and get a view from him, but she has not succeeded. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend cannot express a view but if she can ask the Post Office chairman to take a view and let us know it, we would be grateful.
Jane Kennedy: I am interested in that suggestion. I shall make a few comments about the Post Office and the experience that has been described. I shall not ignore itI can say one or two things about it. I shall also give some thought to my hon. Friend's comments.
I wanted to give one or two examples of good practice simply to show that good work is being done. We want other employers, who perhaps do not use best practice, to learn from that. Rolls-Royce introduced a policy whereby any employee who is absent for more than four weeks receives attention. That includes physiotherapy for both work and non-work injuries. The policy has assisted many employees to stay in work or return to work more quickly. At the same time, Rolls-Royce has improved productivity.
Unfortunately, that approach is far from universal, and a culture can exist whereby long-term sickness absence is accepted as a fact of life. When employers try to do something about it, they and their managers often lack even the necessary skills and support to act effectively.
If people were provided with appropriate advice and support from their employer or GP at the outset of a spell of sickness, were equipped by the NHS to manage their health problem, and perhaps were pressed by the Department for Work and Pensions, for which I am privileged to work, to address other obstacles and helped to find work, I am sure that current employment and health outcomes could be massively improved. That process often starts with good advice on fitness for work and rehabilitation from the employee's doctortheir GPwhich might include the fact that the GP feels strongly that the individual needs more time for rehabilitation. The DWP supports hard-pressed doctors in what we acknowledge is a difficult role by providing guidance, support materials and accredited online training to assist them. We recognise, however, that more needs to be done to help doctors to advise their patients.
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It is also worth remembering that while sickness certificates record the GP's advice to patients about fitness for their usual job, it is the employer's responsibility to determine whether the employee is fit for work and in what capacity. The GP will know their patient well, but will not always be aware of the full details of the workplace situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West and the hon. Member for Guildford have pressed me on how the apparent injustice that they describe can arise. The only circumstances in which employers are compelled to take account of the health condition of an individual are those resulting from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which affords protection against discrimination for people who are defined as disabled for the purposes of the Act. Under that Act, employers are legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to aspects of work such as the working conditions or workplace, or to provide specially adapted equipment for people with a disability as covered by the Act. That might include a gradual return to work.
Sue Doughty: I appreciate that the Minister is covering the wider issues as well as the narrower points that the hon. Gentleman and I raised. In this case, however, in which the employee was outside the scope of the DDAhe was at work, he became ill and was still an employeethe occupational health officer was familiar with his case and had asked for, received and carefully read the information provided by his GP and the specialist who treated him, and yet the employer failed to discuss with her whether he was able to do the work that he was supposed to do and how many hours he should be doing it for. In his case, if he got tired, he would experience extreme pain that would cause him to roll on the floor holding himself. He certainly did not want to be put in that situation in the workplace, as it was embarrassing to him. All he wanted to do was get better and do a full day's work but be allowed the space to do it. It particularly concerns me that the employer could continue to ignore the opportunity to get my constituent fit and well and performing as well as he had done previously, as he had been a really good employee.
Jane Kennedy: Back-Bench Members of the House can sometimes comment much more freely about decisions in relation to individual cases. I do not have that freedom. I will, however, take up the point that has been made, particularly in relation to the apparent rigidity of the policies that the Post Office appears to have in place, with the chairman of the Post Office. I am happy to undertake to do that.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson:
We are grateful that the Minister has undertaken to do that, and that is the whole purpose of tonight's debate. Does she agree that it cannot be right that employers override doctors' instructions and views and force somebody back to work, whether indirectly, voluntarily, through some form of Spanish practice, or whatever? I was an employeryou will forgive me for saying this, Madam Deputy Speaker, coming from the west midlands, as I doand the one thing we never did was override doctors' advice. How can it be that some Newcastle
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agreement or other arrangement can entitle the Post Office, a national organisation, to do that with impunity? I am relieved that the Minister will take up the issue and seek an answer from the Post Office management.
Jane Kennedy: I want to make it absolutely clear that what I am about to say is not what I believe necessarily happened in this case. It may often be the case, however, that an employer has people with medical conditions working for him or her. People react differently to medical conditions: some people with common medical conditions can go on working, while others find themselves unable to do so. What I have learned while working on this is that there are times when we must challenge the clinicians who advise employees. Sometimes returning to work is a valid option when support is provided. When employer and employee work together with medical advisers, the best outcome will be achieved for the individual; it is when that partnership breaks down that things go wrong, and this seems to be an example of that.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson: My right hon. Friend puts it very precisely: that partnership has indeed broken down. There is no doubt about it. The medical evidence suggested that there should be a reviewwhich was refusedand that the employee was not ready to resume full-time work. That evidence was ignored; some Newcastle agreement was invoked, which was absurd, because no one knows anything about it. I have still not found what it is. The man was ordered to return to work full time, and told to sleep on the floor if he felt tired. The whole thing is ridiculous. Perhaps the plans we have for the Post Office will change the situation, but can my right hon. Friend not see that the arrangements did break down, and do need investigation and rectification?
Jane Kennedy: I am reluctant to go quite that far, but I will say this. We feel strongly that vocational rehabilitation has the potential to help us and other stakeholders to achieve our goals. The experience of the hon. Lady's constituent, as she has described it, is of interest to us, not least because that individual has maintained a positive attitude and a wish to return to work throughout his unhappy experience, but also because it involves what is almost a public sector organisation in which the Government have a clear interest. Following today's debateand having read the report of itI will contact the chairman of the Post Office, so that he can reassure himself that its policies are based on experience and best practice.
I too have employed people who have returned to work gradually, and I know that these are delicate circumstances. On the one hand, an employer does not want to force someone to work; on the other, the employer has a budget and hopes that the employee will make a full recovery and return to work.
There is, however, a wider issue, which is why I was keen to bring this matter to the House's attention. There are lessons for employers about getting people back to worknot necessarily those covered by the DDA, but others who have had a lengthy sickness. The main issue in this case is how much better it would have been had the manager concerned taken the advice of the organisation's own doctor, and asked for a review. The ongoing period of several weeks could then have been discussed. The case has a wider implication: I do not want other people in other organisations to be deterred, or to be treated in the way in which my constituent was treated.
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