STAFF sickness is costing Ards and North Down Council £1.8m a year leading a former councillor to claim ‘council sickness absence is out of control’.

Latest sickness figures produced in a report by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) show that sickness levels are running at 7.27% in the local authority which the report authors have warned is a ‘significant issue’ for the council.

The report shows that half of the absences, which cost £1.791m in the last financial year, were attributed to musculoskeletal-skeletal problems, stress, depression, mental health and fatigue syndrome.

The council has not published the report, and has debated its conclusions behind closed doors, however a heavily redacted copy has been obtained through Freedom of Information by former Donaghadee councillor Tom Smith.

He claims that the last time he asked about sickness absence ‘a few years ago’ while he was still a councillor he was told the cost at that stage was £900,000 a year.

“The bill has now doubled and it is clear the council isn’t capable of getting a grip on it,” said Mr Smith, who said it is ‘particularly frustrating’ that the £1.8m cost equates to half of the last rates rise of 7% which was struck by the council earlier this year.

“Had the council managed to get its sick pay under control it could have saved a substantial amount for ratepayers,” he said. “When they did strike the rates they cut a number of services, but one thing they can’t cut is the sick pay bill”.

Mr Smith said the council was asked a month ago to consider restoring the Easter activities in Bangor, the popular Donaghadee Lights Up and the music festival in Groomsport but there wasn’t the funding to do so.

“When I was on council I tried on a number of occasions to have these sick leave absence reports brought into the public domain but every time I was either voted down or couldn’t get someone to second my request so that I could proceed,” Mr Smith said.

“Given the huge increase in rates and cuts in services, ratepayers have a right to know how much this is costing them every year”.

He said it was his belief the council’s terms and conditions relating to sick absence were ‘just too generous’.

“When I was on council I asked for a report to come to council looking specifically at how we could make changes to staff terms and conditions and to my knowledge that report never came to council,” Mr Smith said. “I don’t believe the council has any desire to cut sick absence right back and to tackle the problem – regardless of the size of the bill, it will continue to be paid forever”.

The APSE report released by the council had a lot of sections blanked out but the Chronicle was able to obtain part of the report which had not been redacted.

The section follows on from a finding that the problem of sickness absence within the council is not treated as a corporate priority.

The report continued: ‘One consultee (within the council) said he had come under pressure not to move to dismissal whilst an employee was still being paid, despite there being little likelihood of a return to work’.

Mr Smith described this as ‘an incredible revelation’.

“Here we have a council officer saying pressure was put on him/her not to implement council policy – was he/she threatened, bullied or intimidated,” he asked. “It really is a serious allegation to make but what is equally as serious in redacting that part of the report the council hid that from me and the general public”.

Mr Smith called on the council to publish the report in full without any redactions. “I have no confidence there will be any reduction in the level of absence. I think the cost is going to continue to rise at the ratepayers expense,” he concluded.

A council spokeswoman said they took ‘a very proactive approach to managing staff absence’, including a robust managing absence policy which offered staff the opportunity to avail of well-being support initiatives.

She said the council engaged APSE to produce their report and after it was discussed an action plan was being taken forward. 

Short term absence, the spokesperson explained, was addressed with regular review meetings, setting personal targets and serving performance notices.

“Long term absence is recognised as being harder to address partly due to longer health service waiting lists, resulting in employees being absent for longer periods of time, particularly if they are waiting for an operation to enable them to return to work,” she said.

The spokeswoman said the council would strive to manage long term absence, but there was a fine balance between doing this effectively and ensuring staff’s well-being and health were taken into consideration and managed in a sensitive manner.