Select Committee on Public Accounts Fiftieth Report

2 The reasons for high levels of sickness absence

6. The C&AG's Report examined procedures for the management of sickness absence in both Water Service and Roads Service and found that while these complied for the most part with best practice, they were not applied effectively.[11] Since the C&AG's Report, both Agencies have taken action to apply the procedures more rigorously. This has resulted in measurable reductions in absence and would strongly suggest that the failure of management to apply procedures has been the major cause of high levels of absence.[12]

7. The Accounting Officer suggested that the workforce in Northern Ireland is less healthy than in other parts of the United Kingdom and that this is a factor in higher levels of absence. We are not convinced by this argument and there appear to be conflicting statistics available. However, even if this were the case, it would not explain the extent of the difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.[13] Similarly, it would appear that the security situation in Northern Ireland has not contributed significantly to sickness absence in Roads Service and Water Service.[14]

8. In the absence of any convincing mitigating factors we would conclude that the high levels of sickness absence in these organisations are attributable simply to a failure to manage the problem. Clearly 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.[15] It is also likely that this lack of management action over a long period has created a perception within the workforce, that the abuse of sickness absence provision is acceptable and may have created a culture of absenteeism which will be difficult to reverse.[16]

9. The Department had implemented all 26 of the C&AG's recommendations between publication of his report and appearing before this Committee.[17] We welcome this positive response. However, we are concerned that there was no effective internal mechanism to generate action in this area and we are left with the impression that had the C&AG not reported, no action would have been taken.[18] We note the Accounting Officer's assurance that some work was going on to address the problem of absence prior to the publication of the C&AG's Report, but we would state clearly that it is not good enough for departments to take action to protect value for money only when they become the subject of an investigation by the C&AG. Accounting Officers have a responsibility to ensure the efficient and effective use of resources under their control and should assure themselves that systems and procedures put in place to achieve this are working effectively.

10. In this case, good policies and procedures were in place, but all levels of management from the top down had ignored them. This is very worrying and in an organisation where established policies and procedures can be ignored to this degree in one area, there may be equally serious problems in other areas of management. Our concerns on this point were not lessened by the fact that the Accounting Officer could give no explanation for the widespread failure to apply procedures and had not considered the possibility of a wider systemic failure or a cultural problem within the management system.[19] We recommend therefore, that DRD, Roads Service and Water Service review the operation of polices and procedures in other key areas of management to assure themselves that these are being fully and effectively applied.

11   C&AG's Report, paras 3.8, 4.1, 4.32; Q 3 Back

12   Qq 15-16, 26-28, 143-145; Ev 16 Back

13   Qq 3-4, 8-9, 71; Ev 16 Back

14   Qq 37-39 Back

15   Qq 63-67 Back

16   Qq 40-43, 77-78, 81-83 Back

17   Ev 16 Back

18   Qq 15, 35-36, 76 Back

19   Qq 124-129 Back

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