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Sick leave figures add up to chaos at council.

Byline: By Paul Dale Public Affairs Editor

Absenteeism at Birmingham City Council has increased sharply this year but "schoolboy errors" mean official figures seriously underestimate the true extent of sick leave, it was claimed last night.

Labour councillors said they had uncovered a series of blunders in the calculation of time off for each local authority department, with the result that 8,339 days lost to sickness had disappeared from the record.

Spreadsheets produced by the human resources department, showing time lost to illness between April 2006 and January 2007, were littered with mistakes.

In a few cases the totals over-estimated the number of sick days, but in the majority of cases inaccurate adding up of columns meant absenteeism was underestimated, Labour said.

The cumulative total for April to May for the Adults and Communities department, 7,281 + 7,105, was shown as 14,031 when it should have been 14,386.

Similar errors were made across departments on a month-by-month basis.

The mistakes were uncovered as it emerged that sickness levels are rising, despite assurances by the council's Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders that they are doing everything possible to reduce absences.

According to figures released by the council:

Each of the local authority's 55,000 employees takes an average 10.25 days a year off sick, according to the latest data for March - a significant rise since December when the figure was nine days

Total sickness days between April and January totalled 318,728

Almost 5,500 members of staff - 10 per cent of the workforce - were off with long-term sickness.

Based on an average pounds 20,000 wage, the local authority paid pounds 17.5 million in salaries to staff who were off work.

But the true bill would be far greater, given the need to hire agency staff to cover, and overtime costs.

The April to January spreadsheets put the average number of days off sick per employee at 9.2, which is under the 9.5 target set by the council's ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition last year.

However, Labour said the real figure would be higher if mistakes had not been made in calculating the totals.

The comparable average figure for private sector companies is 4.5 days.

Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore (Ladywood) accused the coalition of attempting to hide bad news. "What is going on here is appalling. These figures are totally unacceptable.

"We are talking about a simple spreadsheet operation and it beggars belief there are no officers at the council capable of correctly entering and adding up these figures."

He contrasted the council absenteeism record with the University Hospital Birmingham, where he is chairman. Hospital staff were off sick an average four days a year, Sir Albert said.

Labour accused the council of deliberately delaying publication of sickness figures for February and March. The data was finally released yesterday afternoon after Labour lodged a formal complaint.

It showed the average number of sick days per employee had risen to 10.25 by the end of March.

A council spokesman said: "Absence figures are a statutory performance indicator. They follow a formula determined by the Audit Commission."

It beggars belief that there are no officers at the council capable of correctly entering and adding up these figures

Sir Albert Bore

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 27, 2007
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