Health is sick man of Whitehall

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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

The Department of Health has a sickness rate almost three times greater than the national average for non-manual workers and 50 per cent more than the average for manual staff. Health, new figures show, is by far the unhealthiest Whitehall department.

According to a series of parliamentary answers supplied to Ian McCartney, Labour's employment spokesman, the Department of Health under its then head, Virginia Bottomley, last year suffered a 6 per cent loss in working days through ill-health.

This compared with a national average, contained in a recent Confederation of British Industry survey, of 2.7 per cent for non-manual workers and 4.2 per cent for manual employees.

Heading the list of total days lost was social security. Peter Lilley's department lost 1,117,263 days due to sickness, giving it a 5.37 per cent absence rate, second to health.

The firm hand of Michael Portillo at employment was not enough to raise staff from their sickbeds. His former department last year lost 636,709 days or 4.8 per cent of those worked. Three departments were unforthcoming with their answers. The Foreign Office could not supply any figures; agriculture has yet to answer despite being asked more than a month ago and the Treasury said it was unable to calculate the days lost due to sickness as a percentage of days worked.

Mr McCartney said yesterday: "The situation revealed by these figures is nothing short of appalling. Last year over 3.5 million days were lost in government departments due to sickness, yet even the Treasury appears incapable of working out how much that absence is costing the taxpayer.

"It is astonishing that there appears to be no standard method of recording sickness absence in departments, no way of calculating the cost to the taxpayer, no way of finding out the effect on the work of government, nor, presumably, any effort to find or tackle the causes."

He had no doubt who was responsible. "Much of the blame for these figures lies squarely on the shoulders of senior ministers who have campaigned for privatisation, market-testing and large-scale cuts in staffing, which have progressively undermined morale among staff and damaged services."

It was no coincidence, claimed Mr McCartney, that of those who answered, the three worst offenders were health, social security and employment. "High levels of sickness absence is often a sign of a demoralised organisation, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the worst levels of absence were the responsibility of Virginia Bottomley, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo."

A spokesman for the health department said its figures did not take into account time taken off in bank holidays by its 7,500 staff and said they could be further skewed by time lost through preparations for a redundancy programme announced last autumn.

Civil servants off work

Department Total days Days lost as lost % of days worked

Defence 959,828 3.18

Education 13,926 3.46

Employment 636,709 4.8

Environment 43,210 3.04

Foreign & Commonwealth Not available

Health 69,363 6.23

Home Office 499,242 4.5

National Heritage 2,190 2.7

MAFF Not available

Scottish Office 77,940 0.036

Social Security 1,117,263 5.37

Trade & Industry 55,107 3.9

Transport 128,204 -

Treasury 19,480 -

Wales 21,543 4.06

Total 3,644,005