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Health secretary given right to suspend GPs’ pensions before conviction

GP practice arrest

Pension benefits for GPs could be suspended if they are accused of a crime – without necessarily being convicted – under reforms brought in by the Government. 

Under existing law, the health secretary has the power to suspend all or part of any rights to NHS Pension Scheme benefits where a member is convicted of an offence.

But it has been decided to extend the powers of the health secretary to be allowed to suspend these rights when a charge has been brought, and before any conviction.

The BMA strongly opposed the measure, warning it would subject ‘innocent members to hardship’, but the Government decided to continue with the proposal despite their protestations.

Last year, the Department of Health proposed to amend the forfeiture of pension benefits as part of a consultation on proposals to change NHS pension scheme regulations.

As it stands, members of the NHS Pension Scheme are liable to have their rights to a pension removed if convicted of a crime that took place before any benefit or other amount became payable.

The Government decided to extend the ‘forfeiture’ rules so that the secretary of state ‘may suspend pension benefits if a member or other beneficiary is charged or convicted with an offence that may lead to all or part of those benefits being forfeited’.

The BMA warned that suspending a person’s pension benefits before they have been proved guilty of a crime would be unfair as it would subject ‘innocent members to hardship’.

The BMA said: ‘We oppose the proposal to give the secretary of state the power to suspend a person’s pension benefits before they have been proved guilty of committing a crime. This risks unfairly subjecting innocent members to hardship.

‘We believe that the proposed new power is neither necessary nor proportionate and should be abandoned. Alternatively, such a power should be limited either by reference to the length of time of the suspension (having regard to the potential length of criminal proceedings) or by reference to the amount of benefits that may be suspended (having regard to the risk of hardship).’

But the Government argued that existing processes are lengthy as the secretary of state first needs to ‘seek representations from the member or beneficiary’ before they can use their forfeiture powers.

‘This takes time and means that a member may claim benefits before the outcome of court proceedings is known or before the secretary of state directs forfeiture,’ the Government said.

‘As a consequence, a member or beneficiary may receive substantial pension and lump sum payments from the public purse, notwithstanding the fact that the member has been charged with, or convicted of, serious relevant offences.’

Dr Naureen Bhatti, an East London GP and appraiser, called the move disgraceful.

She said: ‘I think this would be gross injustice to be able to do this, it’s disgraceful. To do this before someone has even been proven guilty is an absolute disgrace so I would agree with the BMA. I am really shocked to hear this. 

‘It’s too open to harming and I think it will harm more people than in the very rare occasions where someone is such a bad criminal that we don’t want them to get their pension out of the public purse. 

She added: ‘These things take years to settle and by then people might have lost their home or might not be able to pay their mortgage so it doesn’t strike me as fair.

‘If you think about what happened to Dr Bawa Garba, that’s the sort of person who would have lost their benefits if she were in that stage of her career and yet it was a gross miscarriage of justice as the majority of doctors have confirmed and which has now been shown.’

A Department of Heath and Social Care spokesperson told Pulse that the duration of suspension is at the secretary of state’s discretion and will be decided on a case-by-case basis. If the person were to be found innocent, the pension would be reinstated, they added.

The Government said: ‘The Department acknowledges the concerns raised by respondents and emphasises the discretionary nature of the proposed suspension power.

‘The secretary of state is required to act in accordance with obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, and also to consider equality implications under the Public-Sector Equality Duty and the impact on families under the “Family Test”.

‘In addition, general public law principles require the secretary of state to maintain an open mind when deciding whether or not to suspend the right to, or payment of, benefits pending a forfeiture decision and to reach a reasonable and rational decision following consideration of all relevant facts. All representations, including those relating to financial hardship, will be considered by the secretary of state.’

It added: ‘In circumstances where the secretary of state applies a suspension but does not subsequently direct forfeiture, or directs forfeiture of an amount less than the amount suspended, then the amount suspended or the difference will be paid to the member together with interest.

‘In conclusion, having considered the responses, the Department confirms it will proceed to implement the proposed amendments.’