The sickly civil service

By: Jonathan Eida, researcher at the TaxPayers’ Alliance


It has been a long time since Britain shook off the label of the sick man of Europe. The strong economic growth that developed over the course of a number of decades spanning the eighties, nineties and noughties helped alter the perception of the UK as a perpetual basket case. 


But it seems as though things have been slipping into old habits. The UK has been struggling to grow its economy in any substantial manner. In fact, at the end of 2023, fears of a recession were confirmed after two quarters of negative growth


A big part of the problem is the number of people that are economically inactive. According to the ONS, in February 2023 there were almost nine and a half million people between the ages of 16 and 64 that were economically inactive. This is equivalent to a seventh of the UK’s population. The problem is compounded by the number of people claiming long-term health conditions. 36 per cent of working age people are claiming long term health conditions up from 29 per cent in 2016. 


To combat this malaise, the prime minister has announced his intentions to cut out what he called Britain’s “sick note culture”. His goal is to disincentivise an over reliance on the benefit system and thereby encourage economic activity in a bid to spur growth, a very noble goal.


With that being said, the prime minister may want to examine his own house first. Ministers who are in charge of their respective civil service departments have turned a blind eye to their own workforce’s sick note culture. The data shows that in 2022, the public sector sickness rate was 3.6 per cent. This was the highest absence rate in the public sector since 2003 and shockingly, it was higher than any recorded year in the private sector. 


According to the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s most recent analysis, among civil servants, the cost to the public through sickness absence is at least £450 million. This was the equivalent to the cost of building an entire hospital! Incredibly, administrative officers in the civil service managed to rack up almost twelve sick days per year. And this simply cannot be reconciled with working practices. Civil servants work fewer hours, take more annual leave and generally benefit from better working practices. Yet they take more time, far more time, off sick.  


And the perks don’t end there. For example, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliances’ 2018 research, the civil service employer pension contribution was 18.5 per cent in comparison to the private sector’s 4 per cent. 


As usual it is taxpayers that foot the bill. The cost of public sector pension liabilities at the end of 2022 was over £2.5 trillion. Over £377 billion of which was for civil service pensions. This shows the cost of the benefits civil servants receive. At the top of the civil service tree these benefits are most evident. The 20 leading civil servants who ran government departments in 2022-23, had average pension pots of £1.1 million. The largest pension was held by Sir Philip Barton, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) who had a pot worth £2,016,000. These are staggering perks not commonly afforded to the private sector. 


Then there are the golden goodbyes. Civil servants' exit packages amounted to more than £150 million, according to a TPA investigation. 238 former staff members received over £100,000 in exit packages. 26 received over £150,000. The largest exit package was almost £400 grand! 


Furthermore, civil servant pay is on the rise. Grade inflation and pay awards have aided in rising civil service salaries. The number of civil servants being paid over £75,000, has nearly tripled from 4,470 to 12,045. Over two thousand civil servants were paid more than £100,000 and almost two hundred received over £150,000. 


The package of civil service perks is a handsome one. It’s surely time to start considering more generous sick leave as yet another in the already long list.  But if the government is serious about tackling the sick note culture, let’s start with ministers’ own backyards.

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