The Department for Work and Pensions has responded to the 2011 review of the sickness absence system (Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence).  The key recommendation being picked up is the establishment of a new health assessment and advisory service for employers and employees.  The new service, which should be up and running in 2014, will include:

  • a  state funded health assessment of employees after four weeks of sickness absence;
  • ongoing support, in the form of "signposting" to interventions such as online job search services;
  • case management for employees with complex needs.

One of the issues that will require further clarification will be the extent to which employers could be bound by any recommendations made by the new service; the paper mentions that where an employee fails to engage with the service, no further fit notes would be issued, but does not discuss any sanctions on employers.

The Government will also look at the introduction of tax relief on the interventions recommended by the service and at the removal of the statutory requirement on employers to keep statutory sick pay records.  The guidance on "fit notes" (which replaced doctors' sick notes in 2010) will be revised later this year, to highlight the importance of assessing health for work in general rather than for a specific role.

On employment agencies, the government is consulting on the reform of the 2003 Conduct Regulations, as part of the "Red Tape Challenge".  The consultation, which closes on 11 April this year, reiterates the aim of protecting work-seekers and their freedom to move between jobs, so the prohibitions on charging them fees and on penalties for terminating a contract will remain, as will the requirement that "temp-to-perm" transfer fees are reasonable.  There may be a new requirement for employment businesses to agree terms relating to pay with work-seekers, including clarification on who is responsible for paying them.  This issue has increased in significance now that the pensions auto-enrolment requirements are beginning to apply; the responsibility for dealing with the enrolment of agency workers generally falls on whoever is responsible for paying them.

The provision which currently prevents the supply of agency workers to replace striking employees does not form part of the consultation, however.