Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 50 of Session 2003-04, dated 2 December 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that the level of sickness absence among industrial civil servants in Northern Ireland, at over three working weeks per person, is totally unacceptable. He criticised management who had done little or nothing to address the problem until it was investigated by the Committee and called for a step change in the management of the problem to reduce absence to an acceptable level.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 50th Report of Session 2003-04 which examined: the levels and cost of sickness absence; the reasons for high levels of absence; and how the management of sickness absence can be improved. Industrial civil servants in Northern Ireland have levels of sickness absence which are amongst the highest in the United Kingdom. The Department for Regional Development is the major employer of industrials with 2000 staff in its two Executive Agencies: Roads Service and Water Service. In 2001-2002, these workers took an average of 20 days per employee, compared with 12 days for industrial civil servants in Great Britain. Sickness absence costs the Department £2 million a year and around £840,000 a year could be saved if absence was reduced to GB levels.  Levels of medical retirement are also high at three times the Great Britain average and accounting for 60% of all retirements. This significantly increases the cost to the taxpayer because pensions are paid early and at enhanced rates.

The Committee found that the Department's procedures for managing sickness absence were good, but management at all levels, had not applied them effectively. The Committee found no convincing evidence that either the health of the workforce or the security situation in Northern Ireland had had any significant effect on absence levels and concluded that the high level of absence was due primarily to a failure to manage the problem. If procedures had been properly applied from the start or if senior management had acted earlier to address the problem, high levels of absence could have been avoided.

The Department has accepted and implemented all of the recommendations made by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his Report to the Committee. Management information has been improved, targets have been set and steps have been taken to apply procedures more effectively. Consequently, absence has reduced from 20 to 17 days per employee. The Committee commends this comprehensive action but considers that levels are still too high and that a sustained effort will be required to achieve an acceptable reduction. The Committee recommends that targets are regularly reviewed to ensure that they remain both testing and achievable and that the application of procedures should be improved to ensure that: action is taken in response to all breaches of trigger points; inefficiency procedures are progressed with determination and rigour; return to work interviews are carried out for every absence; more effective use is made of Occupational Health Service; and better use is made of pre-employment checks to avoid recruiting poor attenders.

Mr Leigh said today:

"This Committee was appalled at the level of absence which has been allowed to build up in Roads Service and Water Service. Good systems of control were in place but these were simply ignored in many cases. The Committee had looked at one case of a Roads Service employee who had 17 spells of absence totalling 64 days over a period of 3.5 years, without any management intervention. There has been some improvement in performance recently and this is welcome, but it should not have taken a PAC investigation to prompt management to apply procedures which they had already put in place. Levels of absence are still far too high and the Committee will expect a determined and concerted effort by both Agencies to deliver year on year reductions until an acceptable level is achieved."

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