Select Committee on Public Accounts Fiftieth Report

3 How the management of sickness absence can be improved

11. The C&AG found a lack of reliable management information in both Roads and Water Services. Roads Service in particular could produce no meaningful analysis beyond basic absence data and information systems operated by both Agencies included data which was extremely inaccurate when compared with source documents.[20] Both Agencies have since reviewed their base data and improved its accuracy and Roads Service has introduced a new industrial personnel management system which allows action to be targeted at key problem areas such as long term absence.[21]

12. Good information on the extent, causes and patterns of sickness absence is essential to provide a basis for its effective management. It is not surprising therefore that in the absence of such information, management of absence has been so ineffectual. Again, this is indicative of a broader systemic failure to recognise that there was a serious problem. Both Agencies should make full use of their improved management information capability to inform future strategy, improve routine management and monitor the effectiveness of policies and procedures.

13. The main recorded causes of absence in Water Service in 2000-2001 were "injury, accident or assault" and "musculoskeletal" disorders. These are categories of illness which are consistent with poor health and safety protection of a manual workforce.[22] We recommend that both Agencies carry out further analysis of these absences to determine if significant numbers are due to workplace incidents and whether any change is required to the implementation of health and safety procedures.

14. The most significant departure from best practice in both Agencies was in the use of targets as a means of reducing sickness absence levels. Water Service had set no targets while Roads Service had set an "aspirational" target which the C&AG considered to be unrealistic and therefore of limited use in securing improvements in performance.[23] Both Agencies have since set targets. Water Service aims to reduce absence by 30% by 2006-2007 and Roads Service aims to achieve a 40% reduction within five years.[24]

15. The lack of absence reduction targets is a very telling omission, again indicating a basic failure at senior management level in both the Agencies and the Department, to recognise that there was a problem. The fact that the 1998 Cabinet Office good practice report was not copied to the Agencies is not a legitimate excuse for their failure to set targets but it is indicative of a most disturbing failure at Departmental level, to recognise the significance of the problem.[25]

16. Current targets are consistent with the indicative levels suggested in the Cabinet Office report, however, levels of absence in Roads and Water are very high compared with the GB levels examined by the Cabinet Office and we consider that more ambitious reductions may be achievable. We recommend that targets are regularly reviewed in light of the improved management information now available and to ensure that they are as testing as possible while still being realistically achievable.

17. Given that good procedures were already in place, but no one felt moved to put them into practice, it is of vital importance that genuine motivation is introduced into any future initiative to reduce absence. Targets have a role to play in this.[26] We are encouraged to see that targets have been set within the context of the Departmental Business Plan but more could be done to encourage ownership and accountability. We recommend that individual targets, consistent with existing global targets, should be set and tied into personal objectives for appropriate levels of management.

18. A further systemic failure has been the absence of effective links between human resource professionals and line managers responsible for the management of individual staff. Both Agencies have since established central personnel units with the intention of providing improved communication and support for individual managers and to ensure better consistency in the application of procedures.[27]

19. The provision of more meaningful management information, the setting of testing but realistic targets and the establishment of more effective human resource functions to support line managers, will provide a better framework for the implementation of absence management procedures. The implementation of the procedures themselves also needs to be improved in certain key areas.

20. Action should be taken in response to all breaches of trigger points. The Cabinet Office report recommends the use of trigger points to alert management when an individual's absence requires some form of action. Both Agencies have systems of this kind in place based on the number of spells and length of absence, but these have been ignored in many cases, such as the example of a Roads Service employee who had 64 days absence in 17 spells between September 1998 and January 2002 without any management intervention.[28] Response to triggers has been improved recently, with Roads Service issuing warnings in response to 66% of breaches in the past year.[29]

21. Procedures to dismiss staff on grounds of inefficiency should be progressed with an appropriate sense of determination and rigour. The C&AG found that procedures to deal with persistent absence were taking in excess of 30 months to progress from an initial trigger to dismissal due to the issue of repeated warnings and failure to move on to the next stage in the process. Endless streams of warning letters were issued, but nothing was done to enforce them. The application of procedures has since improved and warnings now stay in force for two years so that a further breach of triggers within this period prompts a move to the next stage in the process. This has shortened the process to a little more than 12 months.[30]

22. Return to work interviews should be carried out for every absence, the outcome should be formally recorded and line managers should be trained in how to conduct them effectively. Return to work interviews are widely recognised as the single most effective measure in managing sickness absence and their use has been strongly endorsed by the Cabinet Office report. Both Agencies had a policy of undertaking return to work interviews but no records were kept and it was not possible to determine the extent of their use in practice. We were told that they are now mandatory in Roads Service, with a compliance rate of 94% and all line managers in both Roads and Water Services have been trained in their use.[31]

23. More effective use should be made of Occupational Health Service to shorten the time taken to resolve cases involving long term illness. OHS provides a medical advisory service and both Agencies have trigger points of 20 days absence for referral. In practice there have been delays in referrals well beyond 20 days and further delays, sometimes lasting years, before definitive outcomes were achieved in terms of return to work, dismissal or medical retirement. It may not be appropriate to refer all cases after 20 days but this is a reasonable indicative timescale and the three to six months referred to by the Water Service Chief Executive is far too long to delay action. It is generally recognised that the longer a person is absent, the less likely they are to make a successful return to work. If there is a genuine long-term health concern therefore, it should be addressed at the earliest opportunity.

24. Both Agencies should review their policies for dealing with absences where there is no foreseeable possibility of a return to work and in doing so, should bear in mind that the responsibility for the management of these cases rests firmly with them, not with OHS whose role is primarily to advise. A more proactive approach needs to be taken to reduce the length of time taken to resolve these cases. The practice of simply referring cases to OHS and allowing absences to run on for several years with no intervention and no firm prospect of resolution is not acceptable.[32]

25. Better use should be made of pre-employment checks and probationary periods to reduce the risk of recruiting people who are likely to be poor attendees. In both Agencies new recruits are subject to a probationary period of one year during which time various aspects of performance, including attendance, are assessed. As in other areas, this valuable control has been ignored and employees with unacceptable attendance have been confirmed in post and have continued to take excessive sick leave. Since the C&AG's Report, revised triggers have been set requiring a management response to every absence, and of 80 staff employed by Roads Service last year two have had their contracts terminated.[33]

General conclusion

26. We find it totally unacceptable that taxpayers should be expected to fund the disgraceful level of absence which has been allowed to build up in the Roads and Water Services. We are also very critical of management who failed to implement their own procedures and did little or nothing to address the problem until it became the subject of a report to Parliament. We commend the prompt and comprehensive action taken to implement the C&AG's recommendations but we will expect the Memorandum of Response to demonstrate a continuing commitment to improvement and the basis for the delivery of a step change in the management of this area. We would like the Northern Ireland Audit Office to monitor progress towards this goal and report back to us.

20   C&AG's Report, paras 2.4, 2.16 Back

21   Qq 102-110 Back

22   C&AG's Report, para 2.14; Qq 122-123 Back

23   C&AG's Report, paras 3.10-3.12; Qq 93-94 Back

24   Qq 12-13, 147; Ev 17 Back

25   Qq 44-46 Back

26   Qq 137, 146-147 Back

27   Qq 119-121 Back

28   C&AG's Report, paras 4.2-4.3, 4.6 Back

29   ibid, paras 4.2-4.3; Qq 15-16 Back

30   C&AG's Report, paras 4.7-4.8; Qq 85, 92, 97-99, 153-155 Back

31   C&AG's Report, 4.9-4.12; Qq 130-131 Back

32   C&AG's Report, paras 4.17-4.20; Qq 73-74, 111-118 Back

33   C&AG's Report, paras 4.25-4.29; Qq 61, 72 Back

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