Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Department for Regional Development: Management of Industrial Sickness Management (HC 561-i)

Public Accounts Committee 28 April 2004

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Evidence given by Mr Stephen Quinn, Permanent Secretary & Accounting Officer, and Mr David Sterling, Principal Finance Officer, Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development (NIDRD); Dr Malcolm McKibbin, Chief Executive & Agency Accounting Officer, NIDRD - Roads Service; and Ms Katharine Bryan, Chief Executive & Agency Accounting Officer, NIDRD - Water Service.

Q75 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr Quinn, I have got to say that this Report is so bad it almost became humorous when you were reading it. It is one of the most shocking reports that we have had in front of us. You appear to have policies in place to attack the problem and then you completely ignore those policies. Is it because the ability of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland is poor?

Mr Quinn: That is a very difficult question for me to answer, Mr Steinberg. I would like to think not but at the same time what I cannot avoid is accepting that there was a lack of managerial rigour in the application of these procedures.

Q76 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I accept what you are saying, I am delighted you are saying it because it takes the feet away from you because if you sat there and tried to defend it, it would have been good fun, to be quite honest, but because you have put your hands up it is very difficult to have a go at you. Saying that, it is no good you putting your hands up and saying, "We have been caught now gov'," you should not have been caught in the first place; it should not have been so bad that you had to be caught. It is an appalling record, is it not?

Mr Quinn: I agree that these levels of absenteeism are unacceptable and they are an unreasonable burden on the taxpayer and an unreasonable burden on other people in the Roads Service and the Water Service who are not taking these high levels of absence. What I would say is that having been caught out we have really put some considerable effort into trying to fix it. We have talked about activity rates, levels of warning and so on, but when we talk about outcome rates, the number of average days lost is down to 17.1 but we still think that is far too high and we still think that there is substantial scope for improvement. We think the critical variable in this is the effective and active and timely application of procedures.

Q77 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Could your answers be not so long because we do not have that much time. On page 30 it tells us that you monitored the statistics, you monitored them regularly and then you did nothing about it. That just seems to me as though you are going through the motions and were doing it for the sake of doing it and doing it because, frankly, you had to do it and it looked good when you were asked whether you did do it or not. You were just wasting time anyway. You were monitoring it and not doing anything about it. You cannot just hold your hands up and say yes, that is true; why were you doing that?

Mr Quinn: I will not offer an attempt at extenuation ---

Q78 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What was the point of monitoring it in the first place? You might as well have said, "Go on, lads, get on with it. If you fancy a few days off just take a few days, no problem, we don't mind." The workforce knew that, did they not? They still know that, do they not?

Ms Bryan: No.

Q79 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes they do.

Ms Bryan: No.

Q80 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): We will come to it in a minute.

Mr Quinn: If I could just say ---

Q81 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The Agency says if you are over 25 years old in Northern Ireland you can have seven extra days off if you want. Have you stopped that?

Ms Bryan: Absolutely.

Q82 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Why was it there in the first place? Why if somebody was over 25 did you used to say, "Well, you have so many statutory sick days but just take another seven if you like, lads"?

Dr McKibbin: The reason for those trigger points is that the 1987 Northern Ireland pay and conditions recommended that whenever there was a minor ailment the officer should be referred to OHS after 14 days if he was 25 years and under and 21 days if he was 26 years and above. So that medical advice was taken in and reflected the trigger points.

Q83 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Have you ever seen blarney?

Dr McKibbin: It is true. However, since then, on 1 April this year, new trigger points have been introduced that removed that differential.

Q84 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When I was a head teacher and staff used to say to me, "I have still got three more days of my sick leave allowance," I would say, "You have not got three more days of your sick leave allowance. There is no such thing as sick leave. You have got a statutory amount of days but that does not mean to say you have got to take them." I think it was ten days in those days. "I have still got three of my ten days to take," and I would say, "You have not got three of your ten days to take. You are not supposed to take them in the first place." Not only did you say, "You can have ten," you said, "You can have another seven, lads, if you want."

Dr McKibbin: It is common practice for trigger points to be published and whenever people become aware of them I agree with you they should not become a target, but they are in the public domain.

Q85 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Let's move on. Why did you send out so many endless streams of warning letters yet you never did anything about it? You just sent them out a stream of warning letters. "Send another out, that should do it."

Ms Bryan: There have been case studies highlighted in the Report where there was a prevalence of warnings that were not acted upon. Although there were procedures in both Agencies which had trigger points which encouraged warnings, there was a failure at the senior level and more junior level to take up warnings and where appropriate to take them to a final warning letter or indeed to deal with the underlying genuine sickness with OHS.

Q86 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How long did that those procedures take? 30 months?

Ms Bryan: In some cases they took up to 30 months.

Q87 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It a joke really, is it not, a farce?

Ms Bryan: I do not find it funny at all. I find it very serious.

Q88 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The taxpayer would not find it funny but reading the Report it sounds a bit like a comic strip.

Ms Bryan: The Water Service, as highlighted by the Chairman, is undergoing a process of water reform.

Q89 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How long have they had water in Northern Ireland?

Ms Bryan: Water Services have been there for 30 years.

Q90 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Exactly, it has been a hell of a long time to get some sort of organisation there.

Ms Bryan: The Water Service is committed to changing itself.

Q91 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You went to Durham University, did you not?

Ms Bryan: Yes, I did.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would have thought we would have had a lot more efficient service from someone who went to Durham University.

Chairman: We want no derogatory remarks about Durham University.

Q92 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Sorry, Chairman, I think you went there as well!

Dr McKibbin: I think one of the procedural problems we had was that warnings did not stay live for long enough and whenever somebody hit a trigger point and was warned and then came back to work and had a reasonable performance for six months, the warning lapsed. Now we keep the warnings live for two years, and that is having a significant effect on the number of people who are triggering the second warning stage because if they do come back to work, and have a reasonable period of attendance and then go off again they trigger the second warning point not the first and that moves them through the efficiency process much more quickly. We have 24 second warnings at the moment in the Roads Service compared to seven at this time last year, a big increase.

Q93 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): People talk about targets as well. The Report tells us in 3.10 and 3.12 that the Roads Service set some very unrealistic targets and the Water Service did not set any targets at all.

Ms Bryan: That is true.

Q94 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So after 30 years there were no targets?

Ms Bryan: I cannot vouch for 30 years, I do not think the file records would support me in that, Mr Steinberg, but what I can say is that targets were set following the Report which occurred in July 2003 and targets were set at the November management board for industrial staff. We already had made some progress but we aim to achieve a 30% reduction in absence by 2006-07 and indeed set targets further than then, but that does not mean that when we have achieved the 30% we will feel complacent. We will take opportunities to ratchet up those targets and achieve them faster than in 2006-07 where we can.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Good, good, it will be very interesting whether you come back again in two or three years' time. Unfortunately, I will not be here but I will watch it on Sky. Still it is better than watching Dad's Army, I suspect. Right. I have been told I have only got two minutes left.

Mr Williams: That was three minutes ago!

Q95 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When you were dealing with short-term targets a system was set in place, was it not, and like everything else there were targets in place?

Mr Quinn: There were trigger points.

Q96 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But again it was not taken any notice of really. Look at Cases 2 and 3, I am not sure what pages they are on, somebody no doubt will know.

Ms Bryan: Case 2 is a Water Service case.

Q97 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Seven extensions to warnings, Case 3, recommended three times for dismissal before anything actually happened. That is incredible. He is somebody who is so bad - I presume it is a he - and it was recommended that he should be dismissed but not only was he not dismissed the first time, he was not dismissed the second time and he was not dismissed the third time. He must have been really bad and he must have been laughing all the way to the bank.

Dr McKibbin: The first dismissal for this particular officer was he had had his probationary period extended because of absenteeism and in his probationary period his attendance was satisfactory. There was concern and it was recommended that he be dismissed. The line manager made a decision based on a combination of absenteeism coupled with a very good performance record and recommended that he stay on. Later on in about 1988 he was recommended for dismissal but on the advice of welfare because of an alcoholism problem it was suggested he should not be retired.

Q98 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So he was drinking and it was recommended he should not dismissed?

Dr McKibbin: Welfare advised that he should not be dismissed. When he was recommended on the third occasion for dismissal ---

Q99 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): He was worried where he was going to get his beer money from!

Dr McKibbin: When he was recommended for the third time for dismissal he was dismissed.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Excellent. My time is up, unfortunately, because I was just starting to enjoy it.


Q156 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I think we have established this afternoon that due to the incompetence of management absenteeism in Northern Ireland has been very high. We have been assured this afternoon that things are going to change and in fact are changing and that is good. As Mr Williams has said, we will ask to be kept informed on how it is progressing. However, the one thing we have not really made any decisions on, if you like, or been told what you are going to do about it, is on the question Mr Davidson asked, and that is the information that we are given on pages 64 and 65 regarding medical retirements. This is something which perhaps is not so easy to handle and that is not so much in your hands. However, in England a number of years ago this was handled by this Committee in terms of teachers in early retirement, which cost us so much, and it was put in the hands of local government who soon changed the system to ensure that there were not so many medical retirements, because they cost so much. Mr Davidson pointed out that 58% of all retirements by industrial staff in roads and 56% in water services of all retirements go on medical retirement. That is outrageous. That just cannot be right. I do not mean it cannot be right morally; it cannot be right medically either. I do not believe that nearly 60% of people who retire in Northern Ireland are retiring because they are ill. When you look at the conditions that they retire with, it is no wonder that they have put it on because it would be daft not to try and do this. They get a handout from the Employees Medical Services which increases the amount of pension payable. They get a lump sum retirement pension payable immediately rather than on retirement age and there is no reduction in pension payment if it is taken early. No wonder everybody wants early retirement. I wish I could get that because I would have been gone years ago. Something has to be done about this. I am not a personnel or financial officer to be able to recommend that but I know we did handle it with teachers in England. A system has to be brought in here somehow whereby people are not allowed to do this. I get the impression that the system was so bad that perhaps management was glad to get rid of some people on early retirement financially, just to get rid of them. That is not the way to do it and that costs the taxpayer in England and everywhere else a lot of money. I want, or at least I hope the Committee will ask for, a guarantee that somebody can come up with a system for how this is going to change. How are you going to ensure that genuine people who are sick go out on the sick and that skivers are not going out, because out of 58% there are a lot of skivers?

Mr Thomson: The Northern Ireland Civil Service has just over 30,000 staff. Ill health retirements have averaged about 160 over the last ten years. They blipped in 2000 at 180 but it has sat at about 160. That is 5.3 ill health retirements per 1,000 and I am told that is broadly in line with GB. In the Northern Ireland Civil Service it is not a big issue at 160-odd each year.

Q157 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is not a big issue in Northern Ireland; it is a big issue here?

Mr Thomson: No, it is not out of kilter with Great Britain.

Q158 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You are saying that 58% ----?

Mr Thomson: In the Civil Service. I am not talking about industry; I am just trying to put it in context.

Q159 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): In other words, what you are doing is substantiating what I am saying. What you are saying is that in Northern Ireland it is no worse than it is in England and yet of 58% 56% at least are agencies, so this clearly is a huge problem in those two agencies.

Ms Bryan: No one in the department would want to condone the record that you have so eloquently illustrated.

Q160 Chairman: No one has ever told him that before, certainly not a civil servant.

Ms Bryan: You asked how we would ensure that it does not continue in that way. We have good procedures now. We are implementing them with clarity and a leadership which has not been present in the past. Failure to follow the procedures will be backed by disciplinary action. Hopefully, before we get to disciplinary action, there will be greater dialogue between the experts in personnel, the experts in OHS and the line managers down the line. There has been a culture in the past of looking at people who work well when they are in work and the excuse is made that they are okay when they are in work. There has also been a culture in some cases, not universally, of not wishing to confront problems and dismiss people using procedures which are already there.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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