Public-sector HR chiefs were right to attack the Treasury report on ill-health retirement last week. Terry Gorman, president of the local government personnel directors’ body Socpo, reacted with fury when he said that the Government was branding sick public-sector staff as skivers.
They are doing a difficult and stressful job at a time when the squeeze on local government is ever more relentless. It was a fierce reaction, which was backed by health service HR managers and unions representing teachers, police officers and the fire service.
As all these organisations pointed out, most of the ill-health retirements are due to injuries or accidents in a highly dangerous work environment. Work is incredibly difficult in the public sector.
To be fair to the Treasury, the figures are staggeringly high. It costs the taxpayer £2bn a year to retire 22,000 public-sector staff early because of ill-health.
But the figures are actually falling. In the mid-1990s the figure was 40,000 – almost twice as many as today. And practice shows that it is possible to manage early retirement through sickness properly using effective HR strategies.
The discrepancies that do exist in different areas suggest that if retirements like sickness absence are well managed, then it makes a difference. At Wokingham district council, for example, the HR team carried out a stress audit and implemented a range of actions as a result.
And rules on early retirement were changed three years ago. It is now difficult to retire staff on ill-health grounds. For example, staff suffering from depression will not be retired early unless they are suffering from serious psychiatric conditions.
With an older workforce (Wokingham has 60 per cent of its staff aged over 40) there will be ever more people who will need to retire early because of genuine ill-health reasons.
Of course the leak was carefully timed with the Government’s spending review announcement, due this week. But it is unfair to use public-sector staff once again as the whipping boy for the Treasury. Instead, the Government should be looking at ways to help employers to prevent ill-health at work in the first place.