Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 1 of Session 2004-05, dated 18 January 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"The Prison Service has had a higher sickness absence rate than other parts of Government for a number of years and has been slow to implement initiatives recommended by this Committee in 1999.

At 14.7 days absence per person in 2002-03 sickness levels are still unacceptably high and the Service missed by a long chalk its own target of 9 days. If the Prison Service were to meet its target, then around a thousand extra staff would be available for duty easing the burden on their colleagues and improving support, such as education programmes, for prisoners. This level of sickness absence cost the taxpayer around £80 million in 2002-03.

The Prison Service has improved its procedures for recording and managing sickness absence and has started to bring down sickness rates, but needs to make much further improvement much more quickly."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 1st Report of this Session, which examined progress made by the Prison Service against its target to reduce sickness absence rates; whether long term sickness absences have been managed effectively; whether managers were able to motivate and encourage staff to attend; and the extent to which implementing new systems and procedures had impeded progress.

Following the Committee's examination in 1999, the Prison Service set itself a target to reduce the average sickness absence rate by 2002-03 to 9 days per person from around 15.9 days for 1997-98. The Prison Service has made considerable progress in improving its procedures for recording sickness absence, in management reporting and in the accuracy of its data, but the Prison Service still has some way to go to meet the nine days target.

Staff sickness absence levels remain high. In 2002-03 the Prison Service averaged 14.7 days per person in 2002-03, losing 668,337 working days, the equivalent of a year's work for 3,000 full time staff. In 2003-04 the average was 13.3 days. Staff shortages due to sickness absence result in an increased work load and may lead to increased stress and lower morale for other staff, and impacts on prisoners for example on the time spent out of cells or on education programmes.

The Committee found that the Prison Service continues to experience unacceptably high levels of sickness absence of 14.7 days on average per person in 2002-03 with over 20% of staff taking 11 days or more per annum. The Prison Service should set annual sickness absence milestones to increase momentum towards reducing average sickness absence in prisons to the target of nine days per person.

The Prison Service should consider whether more rigorous checks could be carried out at the recruitment stage to identify candidates' potential health and fitness risks, given that the stressful and physically challenging nature of the work may contribute to sickness levels.

The Prison Service should consider the costs and benefits of not paying staff for the first three days of any period of sickness absence in line with the approach used by private sector prisons to manage sickness absence.

Some prisons are difficult to work in and it is essential to have managers able to motivate and encourage staff to attend. For example, women's prisons, and prisons with high turnover rates, can be more stressful than others. The Prison Service should set differential sickness absence targets taking account of the relative difficulties of each type of prison establishment, so that absence problems are not further compounded by unrealistic staffing assumptions.

All managers in the Prison Service should be trained in how to manage sickness absence and to encourage attendance. The Prison Service should set a target for quick completion of such training, and establish a rolling programme for new recruits and for refreshing existing staff knowledge.

The Prison Service should identify the public and private prisons with relatively low sickness absence, establish the reasons for their success and disseminate the lessons learned. The Prison Service should monitor actions taken by other Prison Governors to implement the lessons learned.

The Prison Service has been slow to implement initiatives recommended by this Committee in 1999 with many not becoming effective until 2002. With the cost of sickness absence currently estimated at £80 million, the Service needs to act urgently to take a tighter grip of the problem.

The Prison Service should use sickness absence data to benchmark performance internally and externally, and to take clear action where particular prisons under perform.

Staff morale in the Prison Service was adversely affected by problems with the implementation of the new Home Office payroll software which impacted on employees' receipt of their correct pay. The Home Office should review the lessons learned for future projects including the human impact of IT system weaknesses.

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