At the end of last year, a proposal to make an apparently minor change to the local government pension scheme, tucked away in seemingly non-contentious draft regulations, caused a furore. Under the scheme, an ill-health retirement pension can only be paid where an independent, qualified occupational practitioner has certified that the employee will be permanently unfit for his/her current or comparable job until the age of 65.
This is a fairly new definition which followed the Audit Commission report, Retiring nature. But the government were still concerned that the provisions for retiring an employee on grounds of ill-health continued to be abused.
Apparently, some councils were twisting the arms of their medical advisers to certify employees as being permanently unfit when they might not meet the criteria. So the DETR proposed the definition of an independent doctor should be changed so, in effect, a different medical adviser had to be engaged by the council just to certify permanent ill-health.
This led to protests all round. Some doctors thought their professional integrity was being called into question. Councils complained the proposal would lead to unnecessary additional cost, and personnel officers said in some parts of the country you could not get qualified occupational health advisers for love nor money. To require an additional one for the certification task alone showed that the DETR was completely out of touch with reality.
The unions said it was already very difficult for an employee to be retired on ill-health, and the new proposal would make it near impossible.
Having received more protests about the proposal than perhaps any other, the DETR have now consulted on a revised definition of 'independent doctor', which excludes only the employing council's own occupational health adviser. Provided they have had no previous involvement in the case, employing councils can refer cases to the relevant administering council's occupational health advisers, and administering councils can set up arrangements with neighbouring administering councils or with employing councils.
Where the administering councils has access to more than one occupational health adviser, they can use one of their own advisers provided they have had no prior involvement in the case.
Though some remain to be convinced there is a need to make any change at all, this definition is more workable and less resource-intensive than the previous one. It seems likely to go through.
It is unlikely this was part of the government's game-plan - the row has brought the issue of ill-health retirement to the fore, and councils may as a result pay more attention to the deliberations of the DETR task force set up to consider last year's Treasury report into ill-health in the public sector. As these might include proposals for a much more flexible compensation regime designed in part to deal with the growing problem of stress at work cases, the set-to about the definition of independent doctor might not have been in vain.
-Tim Rothwell, managing director, GWT Rothwell.