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Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), with whose agreement I am participating in the debate. It is unusual, but certainly not unfortunate, that there is agreement on an Adjournment debate across the Chamber.

I am pleased to acknowledge my interest in the affair. The young man has been known to me for many years. His father has worked for me for many years. He is an outstanding employee and a man of great integrity. The family are exemplary in all respects, so it is strange that the situation that we are discussing tonight has come out of the blue.

The case concerns a young man who has been dismissed after many years of effective service. He was described as one most speedy and effective sorters in the Post Office operation in Guildford, but he has been summarily dismissed. I shall discuss the circumstances of his dismissal, which I in no way seek to defend, in a moment, but I want to question the chain of events.

The hon. Member for Guildford has provided an accurate chronology, so I have no need to repeat it, but I shall examine the principal events. The young man experienced a severe, embarrassing, debilitating male illness, so he was naturally no longer required to work. Logically and appropriately, he then agreed a programme to take him back to work with his GP, the Employee Health Service, which is a medical body that works for the Post Office, and Post Office management. Up to that point, no real problem had occurred.

The EHS recommended that he be re-interviewed and reassessed on his return to work and that a realistic view be taken. However, he got a letter from his manager, which stated that he should return to full-time work and that he would be dismissed if he took one absence, rather than a normal, progressive continuation of the return to work procedure. First, the Post Office did not comply with the requirement that he must be interviewed again from a medical point of view. Secondly, at that point the
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young man's doctor said absolutely that the young man should not return to work and should not be further consulted and introduced to the stresses and strains involved.

The letter from the manager, which came out of the blue, said that the young man should return to full-time work, that if he did not like it, he should sleep on the floor and that the so-called Newcastle procedure would be used. I have asked several people, including the young man concerned, Dominic, about the Newcastle procedure, and none of them had ever heard of it. In my industrial experience as an employer—I make no secret of having always been on the management side—one never goes directly against doctors' orders. That is the one thing that one is not allowed to do. Nevertheless, the young man's manager did not care about doctors and said that the young man should return to work.

At this point, the young man made a fatal error. He should have said, "That is not right. I am entitled to a review under EHS procedures. You are going against what my doctor says. This is putting me in a totally impossible position." However, he tried to make a deal. Instead of saying, "I am not fit enough to return to work", he said that he would give up some of his accrued holiday. Who has ever heard of somebody with a doctor's order saying that he should not return to work, who has the EHS saying that his position should be reviewed and who says that he will take accrued holiday to substitute for his absence? I do not like to say this, but that tells me that industrial relations within the Post Office are not what they should be.

The Post Office has entered into a new arrangement, which I do not understand, with the young man, who thought that he was fine. I think that the decision to make a deal was a huge mistake, but it was not his fault. The situation is symptomatic of something being wrong with industrial relations, perhaps just in that depot or perhaps generally in the Post Office.

The key thing that he had to avoid was another day's illness—that has been denied neither by the management nor by him. So when, under these strange arrangements, he wanted some time off work, he phoned up to say, "Look, I'm going to have tomorrow off." The man agreed. Then one of his managers suddenly said, "No, I don't agree." The effect of that—I can see that I have the full agreement of the hon. Member for Guildford—was that he was sacked. Then he lost his cool. He went into work thinking that he would be sacked and said things that none of us would seek to defend.

No impartial person looking at that situation could understand how a procedure was gone through whereby this young man's doctors' orders were ignored, as were the recommendations of the Employee Health Service, which is the medical advisory authority to the Post Office. A completely unconventional and unsustainable arrangement was entered into by managers, who said afterwards that they had behaved entirely correctly. My right hon. Friend the Minister, whom I am pleased to see here today, has no operational responsibility for the Post Office, but all of us in this House have a deep moral responsibility for the way in which Government organisations, such as this one, conduct themselves on matters of working practices and human dignity—even basic human rights, which is what it comes down to at the end of the day.
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Perhaps the family feel that they will have to pursue the matter further—I hope not—but the situation cannot be left as it is. A young man has been sacked, after many years of exemplary service, for an outburst that was provoked by the most atrocious, irresponsible—perhaps even illegal—behaviour. I put this question directly to my right hon. Friend: are managers in Government organisations allowed to override doctors' orders with impunity? If so, where is the redress? There is an inequality of treatment here that needs explanation and justification, and we look to her to put it right.

5.3 pm

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, those of us who have had the privilege of serving as Ministers in Northern Ireland retain a deep and abiding affection for all affairs relating to the Province, so it was with a degree of disappointment that I missed some of the previous debate. I was attending the construction summit at the QE2 conference centre, where we debated issues to do with health and safety at work—interestingly, the subject of ill health received particular attention.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) on securing this debate on a very important issue. I thank her for highlighting the experience of her constituent, and I appreciate that there is interest outside in what is being said here in the Chamber. Although it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific case in question—the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) have given us some detail about the experience of the hon. Lady's constituent—I welcome the opportunity to speak to the House about the wider implications for Government. If I take a broad approach to replying to the debate, perhaps I can say one or two things about the specific points that the hon. Lady raised, which might offer some reassurance to her and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West.

I stress that the issue affects many Departments and I may not have all the answers today, although I have developed an acute interest in the subject through my work as Minister for Work. I will ensure that other colleagues, who may have a responsibility for some issues that the hon. Lady raised, take note of our deliberations.

We are closer to full employment in Britain today than at any time for a generation, with 2 million more people in work now than in 1997. However, huge challenges remain. We cannot say that genuine full employment has been achieved when nearly one in every 13 of us is out of work and claiming an incapacity benefit. Many have been forced out of work by an illness or a medical condition, as the hon. Lady described. There are therefore 2.7 million people who might be said to be unable to work.

The United Kingdom loses nearly 39 million working days every year. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that that costs the UK economy approximately £11 billion. Those absences are bad for workers, bad for business and bad for Britain. Managing absences from work due to ill health or disability is therefore critical and we take a keen interest in it. Learning from experience is an important part of Government policy.
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Long-term sickness absence is not inevitable. When employers work in partnership with their employees, aided by the right help and advice, sickness absence can and should be effectively managed. For people with many health conditions, effective and timely advice and support would help them manage their conditions before they became intractable. However, only 3 per cent. of companies have access to or use comprehensive occupational health, safety or return-to-work support. That is disappointing.

There are examples of organisations' good practice in managing sickness absence and return to work.

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