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Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue this evening. It arises from the problems encountered by my constituent, Dominic Ponsillo, whose parents have come here tonight to listen to this debate because they feel it is so important.
Dominic Ponsillo is a former Royal Mail employee. He sorted mail, and I understand that he was one of the best and fastest there. In January 2003, he suffered a severe illness: chronic epididymo-orchitis, from which recovery is slow, normally taking a number of months, if not years. The illness renders the patient tired with repeated testicular pain. He was a good employee and wanted to return to his job. When I spoke to his doctor today, the doctor welcomed the fact that he was seeing someone who really wanted to get back to work, whereas people so often come in for a certificate so that they do not have to go back. The doctor said that Mr. Ponsillo's return to work needed to be gradual, at a pace that would not adversely affect him. In the event, the difference of understanding between the doctor, who was expecting a gradual return, and the employer, the Post Office, which had a rigid procedure, led to a complete breakdown of relations between employer and employee, and culminated in him losing his jobunnecessarily, in my opinion.
The issue that I want to cover this evening is how to manage the return to work of an employee after an illness in a way that is not only seen to be helpful to the employee in terms of his return to full health, but recognises the situation in which the employer is placed. Although the case that I am raising relates to the physical illness of my constituent, it is also of interest in respect of any case of prolonged illness, physical or psychiatric, where the employee may at first be unable to undertake the hours and workload that their job normally entails. It is also of interest given that the Government are seeking to encourage more people to return to work after lengthy illness.
From this case, it is clear that the employer had one set of expectations, and the medical staff another. Indeed, at certain points, it was not entirely clear whether my constituent was on sick leave in the eyes of the Post Office. These points are important in large organisations such as the Post Office, which have been trying to reduce absenteeism and sick leave, but incorrect understanding of the situation may mean that time not worked during the rehabilitation period may be recorded and count towards future disciplinary action. It is also clear that the medical advice provided in this case just did not fit Post Office procedures.
The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who is here this evening and who employs my constituent's father, is a friend of the family and has worked on the case with me. We found that there was a clear difference between the standard practices of the employer and those asked for by the doctor, with, indeed, the support of the occupational physician, who was acting for the Post Office. The Post Office's employment rules said one thing, while the medical
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officer representing the Post Office and the GP representing my constituent were both in agreement about a different set of procedures.
We have tried to reach an amicable resolution with the Post Office and have given it months of opportunity to answer questions about what the procedures should be. On 6 Decemberwe are now in Februarywe received a letter saying that it would outline the procedures so that we could fully understand them. However, we are yet to receive a further letter.
Mr. Ponsillo was taken ill in January 2003. In August 2003, his doctor judged him to be 85 per cent. better and signed certificates to allow him a graded return to work. The medical expectation was that the patient was officially off sick, but could, if he felt up to it, return to work for up to the number of hours stated on the certificate. Dr. Arnold, Mr. Ponsillo's general practitioner, believed that the certificate was a legally binding document and thus that it was not for the employer to interpret or disregard what was written. A letter that Dr. Arnold wrote to the senior appeals manager of Royal Mail service delivery when Mr. Ponsillo appealed against dismissalhe eventually lost his jobstated:
Confirmation of that approach was provided in a letter from an occupational health officer for the Post Office, Dr. Guess, who confirmed the need for a gradual return to work. She said that she had made no statement that my constituent was fit for normal duties.
Mr. Ponsillo's line manager went against medical instructions. After the initial six-week period of rehabilitation, the line manager should have ensured that the situation was reviewed, as per the instructions from both doctors. In fact, the occupational physician asked on 1 October for a report to be obtained from my constituent's doctor and to see Mr. Ponsillo in clinic. She subsequently noted in a memo that she made no comment to state that he was fit for normal duties. In response to a query from the line manager, she had advised that the period of rehabilitation was indeed prolonged, but that she would assess the case if requested and review his rehabilitation.
On 9 October, despite the information provided by both doctors, the manager required my constituent to return to full-time work and warned him in writing that an absence of more than one day would trigger stage 3 action. However, Mr. Ponsillo felt at that time that he was not able to do the hours expected. Indeed, he took two weeks of his holiday to try to speed up his recovery. After that time, there were regular disputes between him and management about the number of hours he was supposed to work and whether he was sick or on holiday. That was extremely confusing for someone who was qualified to work in a sorting office, but not well versed in the finer points of contract and dispute procedures. One of Mr. Ponsillo's supervisors then
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made the nature of my constituent's illness known to his colleagues, including the swelling of his testicles, so he had to endure the embarrassment of knowing what his work mates were saying.
The situation got worse. Mr. Ponsillo became more and more stressed because he was worrying about how he would cope with doing more hours in his job than he could possibly manage. Sadly, owing to the stress that was caused, he swore at his manager and appeared threatening, so he was summarily dismissed. He appealed the case and although the doctors and both the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and I made representations, the appeal was upheld, despite the fact that not all medical information was available for the appeal because it was claimed that it had been lost in the office. Losing information about the case seems to be part of the problem.
Mr. Ponsillo did not pursue a case for unfair dismissal because he was advised that if a barrister examined the narrowness of the casethe threatening behaviour to his employerthe dismissal would be upheld. However, had he looked at the wider situation and the stress leading up to the dismissal, the outcome would have been different. Mr. Ponsillo had to make a decision at the time. He was offered a reference that did not say what had happened and decided to take that option, so he lost his job with no appeal.
Had there been clearer guidelines that could have been understood by my constituent, his doctor and his employer, he would still be at work. His GP told me today that his behaviour had been completely out of character. Everybody I know who knows him says the same thing: it has never happened before.
The Post Office uses a procedure known as the Newcastle process of rehabilitation, which has specific guidelines about the hours to be worked and the total number of weeks considered as rehabilitation. It is inflexible and does not take into account the health needs of the individual. It allows only six weeks' recovery time.
"Mr. Ponsillo tells me that at five weeks back to work he was still only doing half his hours. If he was suddenly asked to do full hours this would not be a usual step in a graded return to work and not what he had anticipated."
"Rehabilitation uses gradually increasing hours and tasks to rebuild confidence and work tolerance after a period of absence with ill health. It is important that the steps are graded and not too large as the latter is likely to set back progress. I suspect that he would also feel anxious and angry as he tells me he believes it was what was advised by Employee Health Services and his GP. It does not seem appropriate to use annual leave to facilitate his recovery and this suggestion is likely to make an employee feel resentful or angry."
There is still a dispute about whether Mr. Ponsillo was expected to use annual leave to further his recovery. There is certainly a difference of opinion with the employer about what is normal practice in the Post Office. Dr. Guess made it clear that had he progressed through his rehabilitation as planned, he would now be working normally. She recommended that a report be obtained and that she saw him in the clinic, but that was not carried out.
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As the House can see, clarity is needed about rehabilitation and graded return to work. We need clear guidelines. Employers need to set review dates so that progress can be assessed, with an agreed plan for the future. It is important that medical views are taken into account. In the Post Office, where there is a clear hierarchy, if a manager tells an employee, "You will do it this way", an employee is unlikely to argue back and challenge authority.
It cannot be right that an employee is uncertain about the basis on which he or she should be working in a graded return to work. It cannot be right that a rehabilitation process is so inflexible that when there is a query as to whether an employee is fit to carry out full-time duties there is no medical follow-up, especially with a major employer. Such things are important at a time when the Government want an increase in the number of people returning to work after illness. We want people to work if they can, but it is counter-productive to fail to recognise their health needs and abilities. I hope this debate will provide the Minister with an opportunity to bring clarity to such situations.
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