Unions and MPs have demanded an investigation after ministers revealed that almost one in six employees at the Crown Prosecution Service took long-term sick leave last year. A total of 915 members of staff at the CPS took more than four weeks off work in 2002 but continued to be paid.
The figure has raised concern about pressure put on CPS employees which may have left many suffering stress-related conditions.
The CPS has suffered defeat in several high-profile cases, including the failure to bring to justice the killers of Stephen Lawrence and the collapse of the case against Paul Burrell, former butler to Diana, Princess of Wales. The Home Office has made no secret of its frustration with the service and has called for reform, urging it not to drop so many criminal cases.
The CPS has 6,000 staff including 2,000 lawyers who prepare and prosecute cases for the Government. They earn from £11,000 a year for the most junior administrators to £105,000 for senior prosecutors.
The CPS confirmed yesterday that staff on long-term sick leave get full pay for six months and half-pay for a further six months. After that they are paid a pensionable rate.
John Bercow, Tory MP for Buckingham, said he was "flabbergasted" by the number of people on extended absences.
He plans to ask ministers for an explanation. "A breathtakingly high proportion of the total staff of the organisation - almost one in six - has been on sick leave," he said. "It's exorbitantly expensive to the public purse."
Figures given to Mr Bercow by Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, show that last year, 915 people took sick leave for more than 20 days. The year before, 886 people were off for more than 20 days.
A spokesman for the First Division Association, the union for senior civil servants, said: "We recognise there is a problem with CPS lawyers, in particular, coping with present workloads, the continuous stream of initiatives that the Government is putting in place, and dealing with shortages of staff in some areas.
"We are acutely aware this is leading to stress on our members, and we are working with the department on ways to improve working conditions and so reduce absence."
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents clerical grades, is planning to hold a meeting with the management. "We need to discuss if these levels of sickness are because of pressure at work and what practical solutions can be implemented to address the problems," a spokesman said.
The CPS said it did not believe the absences were out of line with those in other government departments.
"It is not possible to quantify the number of these staff who would be on full pay as this figure includes staff who are on sick leave on full pay, those on half-pay and those on a pension rate," a spokeswoman said.
"The figures are not broken down into levels of sick leave according to medical reasons, for example, stress, so it's not possible to provide further detail about that."
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