The era of civil servants pulling sickies must come to an end

Elliot Keck

May 20, 2022

The lucrative life of Whitehall civil servants has long been an open secret. Blessed with prime pay packets, premium pensions and plenty of other perks, it’s clearly a desirable place to work. But with public sector pensions alone costing the taxpayer £1.8 trillion, it should come as no surprise that the Treasury’s efficiency drive is starting at the very heart of government.

Now, research from the TaxPayers’ Alliance has found that public sector workers also take more sick leave than those in the private sector. This isn’t just because of the pandemic. In 2019 they were absent almost 65 per cent more than private sector employees. It means the total value of working time lost to sickness absence in the civil service in 2019-20 was a whopping £348.5 million. That’s time that could be spent delivering key public services.

Sickness absence is endemic across Whitehall, with only four small departments keeping value lost below £500,000 in 2019-20. They were the Northern Ireland Office, Attorney General’s Office, Wales Office and Scotland Office, with a combined total of just 370 employees. The Department for Work and Pensions is comfortably the worst performer, losing just under £62 million in working time that year. Notably during the pandemic, the DWP was among the worst departments for office attendance, leading to Brits turning 66 facing long delays in receiving their state pension.

Even more interesting is the average number of days off per employee. This is where an alarming gulf can be seen, which can only be explained by departments’ attitudes towards sickness absence. For example, a Ministry of Justice employee was off sick, on average, almost four times more often than an employee at the Department for International Trade. Disparities like these aren’t the consequence of bad luck, but bad management.

Everyone gets ill, pandemic or no pandemic. But taxpayers are sick to the back teeth of seeing civil servants receive perks and bonuses that they could only dream of. Brits will rightly question why those in the public sector are consistently taking more time off work than the workers funding them in the private sector. The private sector has no choice but to be efficient, but if public sector employees adopted this attitude, the government could regain up to £55 million in working time.

Closing this gap would require an almost 40 per cent reduction in public sector sick leave. This may sound like a challenge, but it would provide huge efficiencies at a time when public services are struggling and Jacob Rees-Mogg is stalking down Whitehall looking for savings. And there are many places that government could start.

Firstly, ministers could compare the best and worst performing departments and investigate why there is such a huge variation between them. Secondly, they could look at the types of civil servants taking time off. Administrative officers and assistants take an average of two weeks off sick a year, five times more than senior management. Bring all of these down to average levels in the civil service, and you would have made a serious start.

Whatever the government does to solve this problem, solve it, it must. Taxpayers are simply fed up with endless civil service tantrums over reasonable demands from ministers that in any other profession would be par for the course. The era of civil servants pulling sickies must come to an end.


Written by Elliot Keck

Elliot Keck is Investigations Manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance.


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