Advice to branch members on First Care

Branch secretary Sue Beatty has issued the following statement for members employed by Brighton & Hove City Council:

Dear UNISON Member and Colleague

As you know UNISON Brighton & Hove branch has been advising our members over the last several months in regard to the Council’s decision to use a private (profit-making) company called First Care as part of the reporting sickness absence procedure.  Over this time, UNISON (and GMB) has been meeting regularly with senior HR Managers to discuss this concerning issue as well as  discussing changes being made to the Attendance Management Procedure itself.

The rationale being used by BHCC for bringing in First Care is apparently that some managers are not very good at recording sickness absence and because of this the Council have no clear picture of the real situation regarding staff absence, as well as the financial need for sickness to reduce due to the rising costs associated with this.  There is also the concern that due to some managers not engaging in the return to work process for an employee, staff are not getting the support they should be.  UNISON does not dispute this being an accurate reflection of the current situation; however, we dispute the need to spend 238k over the next two years on a company who are interested only in making money from the public sector.  We are concerned also as to how they will successfully provide a solution to the issue of sickness absence.  We are still not aware of what benchmark is being set by the Council in terms of this contract being “successful”.  First Care have said they can reduce absence by up to 15%.  We are asking the Council at what stage would they deem the contract unsuccessful if 15% is not achieved but a lower percentage was, i.e. 9%

Whilst UNISON has no problem in supporting Council processes to reduce absence   by putting the employee first in terms of giving them the necessary support and help they may need, what we cannot and will not do is support a process whereby a private company will be the first port of call for an employee to contact when they are going to be taking sickness absence.  We cannot support a private company who does not have the well-being of our members at the heart of their business.  This has always been the biggest problem for UNISON in regard to how sickness absence is viewed by BHCC and bringing in a private company whose whole purpose is to reduce absence as their goal is not, we believe, the right way forward.  The company may well reduce absence but at what cost to our member’s health and well-being?  Many questions asked of BHCC around this organisation and how it achieves (or not) have been left unanswered and to date, UNISON has no reason to believe our opinion should change.

Members and non members in vast numbers are contacting us here at the branch on this issue and the over-riding concern is around their need to share medical information with First Care and their reluctance to do so, particularly in regard to staff with underlying medical conditions, which need to be treated with confidentiality and sensitivity.  At the start of our negotiations with BHCC it was clear that staff were expected to call First Care to report their absence and to then speak with a Nurse over the phone to be “triaged” and offered advice.  Our advice to members at this time was to not co-operate with this company when it became live.

However, two recent pieces of information have now been shared with us; BHCC have agreed after much discussion with the unions, that staff will not be expected to engage with any of the (medical) staff when calling First Care if they so choose.  Staff are however instructed from the launch date to call First Care, instead of your manager,  to notify your sickness absence.  As an instruction by your employer, it has been clarified to the unions that failure to do so could result in disciplinary action being taken against you.  Clearly this would be a sledgehammer approach but one which has been made clear to us as an option for BHCC to take should staff not engage in the reporting process.

Clearly UNISON does not wish to see any staff in such a situation as being disciplined and so I have needed to consider how best our members can be protected from such a situation.  To this end and having discussed this with our  representatives at Branch Committee, I feel that the following would be a way forward which would protect your position but would not require you to engage in any discussion on your medical situation at all.  Of course, this is advice….UNISON cannot insist that any member act as advised below below and if at any point staff did find themselves in a disciplinary situation, we would of course provide the necessary support, representation and advice to our members.

So, if staff call First Care, talk to one of the Call Centre staff, giving their name and workplace and stating they are off sick and will not be at work for however long (in the same way as you would explain this to your manager currently),  when they ask you if you wish to discuss your health issues/needs with a Nurse, you are quite within your right to refuse this as BHCC have confirmed with UNISON that this is not mandatory.  This means you are complying with the request to report your absence but are not having to engage in any discussion around your health issue unless you choose to do so.  If there are indeed staff who are willing and happy to take up this offer then of course they are free to do so.

This will mean however that if staff do not comply fully with what is on offer (i.e. medical advice/triaging etc) then how successful the organisation will be in bringing down absence remains to be seen!

We believe the above advice protects our members from any negative action taken by the employer but also provides the assurances that staff will not have to share any info or discuss any of their health issues if they don’t want to.  I am however, very happy to receive comment or consider other ideas if staff feel that what has been advised is not possible for them to work with.

I have no doubt that as this “service” progresses problems may surface and UNISON will, of course, keep you abreast of things as they happen.

This e-mail is being sent out to all our members for whom we have been given an e-mail address and who have given their permission for us to use it by supplying it to us.  Please share this around with colleagues if you feel others have not received this e-mail.   Please encourage colleagues to supply us with their personal e-mail address or agreement to send e-mails to their BHCC e-mail address so that we can circulate more widely. We are also putting a copy of this e-mail onto the UNISON bulletin board on the Wave and on our local website which is

Finally, it would be really helpful for us here at the branch to receive feedback in regard to using First Care to report absence.  If any of you feel you would like to provide this, at any time, please get in touch with me via e-mail.

With best wishes to you all and many thanks for your patience and support of UNISON in this matter

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