Absenteeism in government costs taxpayer £350m

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Absenteeism in government departments and agencies is way above the national average, costing the taxpayer more than £350m each year - enough to pay the salaries of 26,000 teachers - according to a new report.

The report, compiled from extensive parliamentary questioning by David Chidgey, the Liberal Democrat employment spokesman, discloses average absence scores for many departments - and next step agencies - far outstripping the private sector. Of the 108 canvassed, 62 had rates exceeding the national average, with some apparently failing to monitor sick leave at all.

The replies showed none of the Northern Ireland Office's agencies had an absence rate of less than 10 working days a year per person. Its worst, the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency, disclosed a rate of almost 20. DSS agencies have also been performing badly, with the largest for which figures were available, the Benefits Agency, recording a 1993 figure of almost 13 days per person.

The study puts the national average as 8.2 days, but only 24 of Mr Chidgey's inquiries produced figures below that mark. Only 15 of the agencies fared better than the Industrial Society's average for financial companies (3 per cent), the services sector (3.3 per cent) and the privatised utilities (2.9 per cent).

"Huge amounts of money are being squandered on paying for absenteeism," the report says. It puts the cost to the public purse at more than £350m a year, based on an average salary of £20,500 across all grades but excluding Northern Ireland and the Central Transport group, for which full data was not available. For the Prison Service, with an absence rate of 13.05 days, the cost to the taxpayer would be closer to £1,000 per person.

Agencies of the Treasury and the Scottish Office all had rising rates of absenteeism, with the Treasury showing the worst record as a department with a rise of almost 30 per cent since 1993. Absence at the Department of National Heritage, by contrast, stands at just 0.55 per cent, or less than 1.5 days per person.

At the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Weights and Measures Agency's rate shot up by more than 60 per cent, while that for the Radiocommunications Agency fell by almost 25 per cent. Thirteen Ministry of Defence agencies were unable to provide any information at all.

Several departments, including the MoD, Agriculture and the Department of Employment failed to produce replies when first questioned by Mr Chidgey. In what appears to be a damage-limitation move, however, information has now been supplied to Peter Bottomley MP in a written reply from the Cabinet Office this week.

Mr Chidgey plans a series of further questions asking ministers what steps they will take to reduce absences. He said: "The Government are forcing savage cuts on local authorities in the name of efficiency savings yet are failing to tackle real waste on their own doorstep. Most private- sector companies now recognise the importance of monitoring absenteeism as a first step towards actively reducing it. This simple lesson has yet to be learned by many government departments."

Absence data for the vast majority of those paid via the Department of Health, the largest employer in Europe, is not available except through individual health trusts and commissions. "The `quango-isation' of the National Health Service has resulted in a lack of information about this crucial aspect of efficiency," the report says.

One figure the questioning did produce was the absence rate for the London Ambulance Service: overall it was 9.4 per cent, the equivalent of more than 21 days per person.