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COUNCILLOR CALLS FOR PUBLIC SECTOR SICKNESS ABSENCE ANALYSIS

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A Belfast councillor today called for the Local Government Auditor to ask the Northern Ireland Audit Office to anal...
A Belfast councillor today called for the Local Government Auditor to ask the Northern Ireland Audit Office to analyze the trends, causes and rates of sickness across the public service in Northern Ireland.

Margaret Clarke, chairman of Belfast City Council's personnel sub-committee, said that it was vital to establish why Northern Ireland local government has a lost time rate of 20 per cent more than local government in the rest of the United Kingdom, and why the difference between the Northern Ireland and the UK Civil Service is even higher.

Councillor Clarke was speaking as it was revealed that Belfast City Council's absence rate for the year had risen slightly, from 14.22 days per person last year to 14.51 days in 2003/04.

However, the figures also show that almost one-third of staff (30.7%) had no sickness absence at all, 25.8% had less than five days and 13.9% were absent for between five and ten days.

The figures indicate the council has no short-term sickness problem but long-term absence - at 19.1% staff with more than 20 days' illness - is where improvements are required, as it accounts for 63.1% of the total working days lost.

Councillor Clarke said: 'Belfast City Council is transparent with its sick absence figures, unlike many organizations, and as a result we are highlighted in the media as having a poor record, even though other employers have similar difficulties.

'The council takes this problem seriously and has put in place a clear and well communicated policy and procedure for dealing with absence and has introduced a number of new measures.

'However, it is clear that sickness absence is not simply a Belfast City Council problem but that Northern Ireland's local authorities and the Civil Service compare poorly to the rest of the United Kingdom's local authorities.

'I want to know if Northern Ireland being one of the poorest regions in the UK, with a GDP nearly 40% that of London, is a factor. Research also shows that the 10 worst wards in Northern Ireland in terms of health are in Belfast, nine out of 10 of the most deprived wards are in Belfast and that the wards with the highest death rates also have the highest levels of deprivation. That is clearly a contributory factor.

'Sickness absence records in Northern Ireland need to be put into that context and rather than simply produce sickness absence figures without a context, we should look into the trends, causes and rates of sickness absence across Northern Ireland.

'A partnership approach with other public sector organizations in Northern Ireland with regard to further analysis and research would inform local authorities with regard to a strategic approach to absence management and it is my belief that the Northern Ireland Audit Office would be best placed to lead such a project,' said Councillor Clarke.

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