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Town Hall to investigate staff sickness after budget overspend on agency staff

Levels of sickness and absences ‘unsustainable’, says finance chief

07 September, 2018 — By Samantha Booth

THE Town Hall is set to bring in a specialist to investigate why so many staff are calling in sick or not turning up for work.

It comes as Islington Council revealed that some of its employees have failed random drug and alcohol tests in the past year.

A human resources analyst will now look into why staff in environment services – such as bin ­lorry drivers – are failing to turn up for work, prompting questions from councillors over whether there is an underlying management problem.

The authority’s already-squeezed budgets have seen an overspend of £1.6m in the department, largely on agency staff, so far this financial year. A restructure was carried out in the in-house street cleaning services in recent years, with staff now working on local patches rather than borough-wide. This may also be probed over a possible connection to staff absence.

Finance chief Councillor Andy Hull told a council meeting this week: “We’ve got levels of sickness and other absence in street environment services that are not sustainable. We need to do as much as we can about it.”

After discussions with unions, about a year ago the council brought in random substance checks for safety critical staff – such as drivers of school transport or other vehicles. Environment and regeneration services lost some staff after these tests.

Cllr Hull said: “Sadly, through that we’ve found not everyone, particularly in environment and regen­eration, is coming to work sober and we need them to.”

He added that he did not apologise for taking the “toughest” action necessary, saying it was accompanied by a “whole raft of supportive measures”.

Stephen Key, assistant director for service finance, said environmental services had a “historic problem” with overspends, with reasons for the hiring of agency staff varying over the years.

Cllr Andy Hull and Cllr Osh Gantly 

Councillor Osh Gantly, who represents Highbury East ward, asked whether management style played into the sickness figures.

Speaking at the policy and performance scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday night, she said: “Having done work on this elsewhere in the past, high rates of sickness absence are often a reflection of fairly relax­ed management. What concerns me is that the work I’ve done in the past on this suggested that it doesn’t matter what your sickness policy is, as long as it’s enforced.

“Now, obviously people who are ill are ill. I’m not talking about hounding people, but if line management is turning a blind eye to people not turning up to work, which is often the case, that needs to be looked at.”

Cllr Hull said:  “It’s partly a HR [human resources] issue, it’s partly an ENR [environment and regeneration] issue, it’s partly a more generic management issue.

“There’s not going to be one silver bullet, but we need to get to the bottom of it as it’s the only thing at the moment that means the budget isn’t perfectly balanced.”

He added: “While the rest of us are tucked up warm in bed and these people are having to go to work in the middle of night you can imagine a microculture might develop in one part of the council that isn’t exposed to the same scrutiny as other parts of the council. And that should be something we should address.”

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