Police abuse sickness leave

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The Independent Online
Almost 400,000 working days are lost every year through officers in the Metropolitan Police taking time off sick. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, says that a report published today suggests the system is being abused and wasting millions of pounds.

About 1,500 police officers are absent from work in London every day due to illness or injury, and the number continues to rise.

A report by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, says that only 13 per cent of the absences are due to injuries sustained on duty, while there has been a big rise in days lost to stress and depression.

It notes that while outright abuse of sick leave is difficult to prove, long-term absence relies on certificates from doctors which are "often on the basis of only a brief consultation and who may be reluctant to offend a patient". It adds that sanctions against abusers are "limited" and that pounds 6.3m could be saved if the average sickness rate was reduced by one day a year.

The study comes at a time when there is growing concern about the number of police officers retiring on medical grounds - including some who are leaving to avoid allegations of corruption and malpractice - which now costs pounds 330m a year. In some forces, three-quarters of officers use ill health to retire early on a full pension, although this issue is not addressed in today's report.

The NAO says that the rate of sick leave among the 27,000 Metropolitan Police officers is higher than the national average and the highest of all metropolitan forces. While praising the Metropolitan Police for making improvements in dealing with sick leave, it expresses concern that new powers to reduce or stop the pay of officers on extended sick leave is rarely used.

In March this year, 312 officers - 1 per cent of the force - had been absent for six months or more within the past year, yet only 10 of these had their pay reduced. Just 12 per cent of all cases were due to an injury sustained while on duty. Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the the Metropolitan Police, has agreed to review this policy.

On average, police officers took 14.4 working days off sick in the year to April 1997 compared with 11.3 in 1991/92. This costs the police at least pounds 72m a year.

The Metropolitan Police said that the force accepted the report's recommendations and added that it had already started implementing some of them.

The Management of Sickness Absence in the Metropolitan Police Service, is available on 0171-873 0011. Priced pounds 9.85.