SBC split as sicknote row rages

THE death knell for the decision-making structure at Scottish Borders Council may well have been sounded this week.

And, according to the chairman of the cross-party scrutiny panel, the demise of a system in which an elite 13-strong executive rules the roost cannot come soon enough.

Councillor Donald Moffat, leader of the opposition SNP group at Newtown, reacted angrily to the decision by the executive on Tuesday to reject a series of recommendations put together last month after a scrutiny hearing into sickness absence and its causes at SBC.

The panel had taken evidence from senior officers as well as Councillor Alec Nicol, the deputy leader of the council with special responsibility for personnel.

Scrutiny heard that in 2011 the average number of days’ absence for non-teaching staff stood at 11.56 and that the absence rate for these employees was 1.8 days more than the Scottish average, ranking SBC at 27th out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

Four categories accounted for 59 per cent of the long-term absences: anxiety, stress and depression (23 per cent); muscoskeletal problems (16 per cent); back problems (10 per cent); and injury fracture (10 per cent).

The backbench councillors also heard of a surge in sickness absences among teachers: from an average of 5.65 days in 2009 to 7.03 days last year.

During discussion, the panel was advised that any concerned employee contacting a councillor was in breach of contract and a conflict existed because councillors were classed as an employer and not trained in employment law.

After the two-hour session, the nine-member panel, under the chairmanship of Councillor Moffat, unanimously agreed a series of recommendations to deal with what it clearly considered an unsatisfactory situation.

They concluded the speed of absence management action points was slow in lowering levels of absence and should be accelerated, and that the current policy of employees being in breach of contract for sharing their concerns with councillors should be reviewed.

They also demanded that directors ensure all their staff are regularly advised of HR policies and procedures, and all line managers should be reminded of their responsibilities in terms of contacting employees who are off sick.

On Tuesday, Councillor Nicol urged his executive to take no action on any of these recommendations, claiming there was no evidence management action in relation of absence was slow and maintaining that the grievance procedure, without recourse to contacting elected members, was well established. He said all grievance procedures were currently under review.

His only concession to scrutiny came in the latter’s call for the director of education to probe the rising level of teacher absences in order to ascertain and minimise causes. Mr Nicol said a report, with an action plan, would be presented to a future meeting of the education executive.

Although the rejection of the scrutiny recommendations was agreed, it was not without disquiet from executive colleagues.

Councillor George Turnbull (education) said Mr Nicol had “decimated” scrutiny’s findings. “These recommendations were not pulled out of the sky,” said Mr Turnbull, while Councillor Carolyn Riddell-Carre (planning) said it was “a very great pity” that staff with concerns could not contact councillors.

Mr Moffat, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting, said he was “disappointed and astonished” at Mr Nicol’s rejection of the panel’s recommendations on such an important issue.

“Our hearing, which Mr Nicol attended, was thorough and comprehensive, and this decision shows nothing but contempt for the democratic process,” said Mr Moffat.

“This was the last meeting of the executive before the election and a timely reminder of why, if the SNP gets into power at Newtown in May, the first thing we will do is abolish this elitist system.”

Meanwhile, it appears sickness absence pervades all pay grades on the council and it was revealed this week that Tracey Logan, who was appointed to the top job of chief executive in October, has been off work for most of the past four weeks. “Andrew Lowe, the director of social work, is currently acting chief executive,” said a council spokesman.