Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Northern Ireland council sickness rates highest in UK

Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

Sick leave at Northern Ireland councils is the worst in the UK, with staff missing three weeks at work every year, a report reveals today.

Absenteeism remains at record levels, with the average employee missing for nearly 15 days.

At two councils, staff missed more than 17 days on average.

Sick rates across the last two years are at their worst since auditors began monitoring the issue in 1990.

The lack of progress in addressing absence rates will now be investigated by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

It is one of the key issues detailed in a report published today by local government auditor Pamela McCreedy.

Her report also notes:

- Spending on agency staff is continuing to rise, totalling almost £26m in a year.

- Almost £40m was spent on severance payments in a four-year period.

- Many councils are not fully prepared for the implications of a no-deal Brexit.

During 2017/18 the 11 local councils spent £936m providing services to the public.

They employed over 10,000 full-time staff and had assets worth more than £2bn.

Today's report looks at a range of issues from an audit of councils' financial statements from the 2017/18 financial year.

One of the key issues is continued high rates of absenteeism.

The report notes that sickness levels have been monitored annually since 1990, and peaked in 2016/17, with little improvement in the latest figures.

The average 2017/18 absence rate for the councils was 14.89 days - almost three weeks based on the five-day working week.

That was down slightly from 14.95 days in 2016/17, and represented around 6.8% of total working days.

Musculoskeletal problems, stress and depression were the main causes of long-term absence.

Figures show a significant range in the average number of days lost per employee.

Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council recorded the lowest number (11.9 days lost, compared to 14.4 days in 2016/17), while Newry, Mourne and Down District Council recorded the highest rate at 17.1 days (17.3 days in 2016/17).

The report states that sickness absence levels are the highest in the UK.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (17.08 days) had the second highest rate.

A spokesperson for Newry Mourne and Down District Council said that tackling sickness absences was a priority for the council.

"It is disappointing to note that Newry, Mourne and Down District Council recorded the highest rate sickness absence days; albeit that was a slight reduction on the previous year," the spokesperson said.

"The Council continues to work with the recognised Trade Unions to agree revised Management Attendance Procedures aimed at achieving improved management of sickness absence.

"Council management has focussed on absenteeism in the past year, which is expected to realise a further reduction in absenteeism for 2018-2019.

"Wellness initiatives for Council staff are in place to improve the health and wellbeing of employees and remain a corporate priority for the Council.”

Mrs McCreedy said: "My predecessors and I have consistently highlighted the importance of closely monitoring and actively managing sickness absence levels. This is to ensure that staff welfare is protected and that the delivery of front line services is not adversely affected.

"With overall absence levels at Northern Ireland's councils at their highest in 2017/18 for two consecutive years and consistently ranking as the highest in the United Kingdom, with no indication of improvement, I have decided that councils could benefit from a more detailed report in this area."

She said the Audit Office would investigate the matter more extensively.

Overall, councils are in a financially strong position and managed their finances well in 2017/18, the report continued. The £936m spent providing services to the public works out at £473 on average for every person here.

Councils received income of £862m, 70% of which was from district rates.

As of March 2018, councils had outstanding loans totalling £485.3m. In 2017/18 councils paid almost £38m towards the principal outstanding balance and £23m in interest costs.

Use of agency staff not giving value for money

Some councils are still too heavily reliant on agency staff, leading to warnings that using them is not delivering value for money.

In 2017/18, total employee costs totalled £355m — around 38% of operating expenditure — with agency staff accounting for a further 3% (£26m).

The overall cost of agency staff has continued to increase year on year, rising by £1.7m last year.

Most of this increase was attributed to Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.

Agency costs at seven councils either reduced or remained relatively stable. That is an improvement on the previous year, when nine councils saw agency staff costs rise.

Local government auditor Pamela McCreedy said: “In 2017/18 some councils continued to be dependent on agency staff to deliver local services.

“I will continue to keep the costs associated with agency staff under review across all councils, and I will also focus on the types of work they perform and the length of time they have been working in the council.

“There is a risk that over-reliance on agency staff over an extended period of time does not provide value for money.”

Severance payouts cost £40m from 2014 to 2018

Almost £7m was spent on council exit packages in the last year.

Councils are required to disclose the number and costs of these payments.

Expenditure includes compulsory and voluntary redundancy costs, pension contributions and other departure expenses.

Over the four years from 2014/15 to 2017/18, 10 councils have paid a total of £38.8m in exit packages to staff. 

A total of 571 exit packages were agreed, with 134 exceeding £100,000.

Many of the payments were linked to the reform of local government, which led to the creation of 11 super councils in 2015.

In 2017/18 councils agreed 99 exit packages at a cost of £6.7m. The average cost was £68,000 — 24 were greater than £100,000.

The number and cost of exit packages has fallen significantly since 2015/16.

However, in the four years preceding 2014/15, the average number of exit packages was 61, with an average cost of £2.1m.

Today’s report states: “The number and cost of exit packages in 2017/18 remained high and is an indication that councils’ workforce plans had not stabilised.”

Not one local authority ready for no-deal Brexit

No council is fully prepared for a no-deal Brexit, today’s report warns.

It states the UK’s October 31 departure from the European Union presents a significant risk to the operation of local government, and councils have been constrained in terms of planning.

“The lack of clarity so far on the shape of an exit deal and a clear way forward, as well as the absence of additional funding, inevitably means that councils have been limited in terms of the practical preparations they can make,” the report states.

“Exiting the European Union is a significant risk to local government service delivery, in particular community planning, the economy and tourism.”

Auditors found that Brexit preparations vary across councils, with some establishing dedicated working groups or committees.

It adds: “No council is fully ready, in operational terms, for a no-deal exit. The outworkings will have most impact on those councils which have a border with the Republic of Ireland.”

The report also warns that if the UK Government and EU fail to agree a withdrawal deal, there will be no transition period and councils will need to respond immediately.

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