The British Medical Association (BMA) has won a case in the high court against health secretary Matt Hancock over changes to the NHS pension scheme that would allow him to stop pension payments to NHS employees charged with a criminal offence.
Hancock amended pension rules in April last year to give himself the power to suspend the payment of pensions benefits to any doctor or NHS professional who has been charged with criminal offences, but has not yet been convicted.
Under existing law, the health secretary has the power to suspend any rights to NHS Pension Scheme benefits where a scheme member has been convicted of an offence.
Most public sector pension schemes will suspension the payment of a person’s benefits if they are convicted of a crime, but not before the point of conviction. Hancock’s changes would make the NHS the only public sector body to do this.
In a judgement handed down on 17 January 2019, the high court supported the argument put forward by the BMA that the proposals breached a number of laws, including Article 6 (the right to a fair trial) and Article 14 (protection from discrimination).
The judge, the Honourable Mrs Justice Andrews, wrote that ‘no explanation had been given to how the scope of power to suspend came to be expanded to cover the period between charge and conviction, or what the thinking was behind it’.
She added that the fundamental principle in law is that ‘every defendant to a criminal charge, however serious, and however compelling the evidence against him may appear, is presumed innocent until proved guilty to the criminal standard’.
BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul said the judgment is ‘a victory for natural justice’ for ‘all NHS professionals’ who could have been unlawfully deprived of their pensions benefits had these rules remained in place.
‘We could not allow the government to simply disregard the fundamental principle that a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty,’ he said. ‘These rules assume guilt from the outset with little regard for the impact on a doctor’s well-being, career or personal life.
‘From the evidence presented, it is clear the government made no assessment, or worse, just disregarded the potential effect this rule change would have on those who are retired and already drawing on their pensions and those who are older, ill or disabled.’