Select Committee on Public Accounts Fiftieth Report


Any effective regime to manage human resources in the public sector must achieve a proper balance between support for staff during genuine periods of ill health and the potential abuse of sick leave as a form of absenteeism. 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 (DRD) is the major employer of industrials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, with some 2000 employees in its two Executive Agencies: Roads Service and Water Service. These workers took an average of 20 days per employee in 2001-2002 as compared with 12 days for industrial civil servants in Great Britain and in some parts of Roads Service levels were as high as 30 days per employee.

Figure 1: Average working days absence per employee 2001-2002

On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General,[1] the Committee took evidence from the Department, Roads Service and Water Service on three main issues:

·The levels and cost of sickness absence;

·The reasons for high levels of sickness absence; and

·How the management of sickness absence can be improved.

As a result of our examination, we drew the following main conclusions:

High levels of absence are attributable primarily to a failure to manage the problem

·There is no convincing explanation as to why levels of absence among industrial workers in the Northern Ireland Civil Service should be so much higher than their counterparts elsewhere in the United Kingdom, other than the acknowledged absence of any effective management of the problem. It is likely that the lack of intervention over a long period of time has created a culture of absenteeism. We expect to see this tackled as a priority

Good policies and procedures were in place but were not applied

·Polices and procedures to manage absence conformed very well to the best practice guidelines laid down in the 1998 Cabinet Office report, but there was a consistent and widespread failure to implement them. This is cause for concern in itself, but where such a fundamental failure is possible in one area of management, this may indicate a wider cultural problem and there may be similar failures in other areas. It is important that the operation of policies and procedures in other key areas are reviewed to ensure that they are being applied fully and effectively.

Senior management did not intervene at a strategic level to address the problem

·Absence statistics were reported to senior management but no action was taken. The lack of targets for absence reduction and the fact that management information was either poor or non-existent is symptomatic of a failure at senior level in both the Department and the Agencies to recognise that there was a problem which required their intervention.

Action taken since the C&AG's Report has produced measurable improvements

·The Department of Regional Development has accepted and implemented all of the C&AG's recommendations. Management information has been improved, targets have been set and steps taken to ensure that procedures are being applied more effectively. This has resulted in significant reductions in the levels of absence in both Agencies. This is convincing evidence to support the conclusion that management failure was the main cause of high absence levels. We welcome this positive response and expect the Department to ensure that progress is maintained.

1   C&AG's Report, Department for Regional Development: Management of Industrial Sickness Absence (HC 736) Back

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