Council set to spy on 'sicky' takers
COVERT surveillance techniques are to be used by a west Suffolk council in a bid to crackdown on staff taking “sickies”.Unison last night voiced concerns over St Edmundsbury Borough Council's inclusion of a “surveillance” section in the final draft of its new “sickness absence and ill health policy and procedure” document.
COVERT surveillance techniques are to be used by a west Suffolk council in a bid to crackdown on staff taking “sickies”.
Unison last night voiced concerns over St Edmundsbury Borough Council's inclusion of a “surveillance” section in the final draft of its new “sickness absence and ill health policy and procedure” document.
Although the council refused to state whether it had carried out any investigations in the past year against staff whose absences were deemed suspicious, the council's general absenteeism rate has fallen from nine days per year per employee to 8.8 days.
Despite improved attendance among its staff, the council has drawn up plans for using covert surveillance to catch workers believed to be abusing the system.
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But the council claimed spy-style techniques would only be used against its own staff following “careful consideration”.
The council ruled out drafting in private investigators. Instead, covert surveillance will be undertaken by “suitably trained council officers”, according to the local authority.
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The council would not divulge what forms of covert surveillance it would use to catch suspected staff, but it not deny that long-lens cameras would be used.
In its draft document, the council said: “The council may undertaken surveillance or notify the Inland Revenue where there is cause for reasonable suspicion that an employee is in breach of the sickness absence policy/procedure.
“Covert surveillance, where there are suspicions of breach of the rules under the sickness absence scheme, a suspicion of gross misconduct or fraud, will be proportionate and key to any investigation which we are bound to carry out.
“Covert surveillance will take place only when absolutely necessary to establish the facts of a case, and will be in accordance with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act Code of Practice on Covert Surveillance.”
But Sasha Pearce, Unison's regional organiser for Suffolk, said Unison was concerned about covert surveillance being used against council employees.
She said the union would be seeking clarification and provisos in the policy, such as only using covert surveillance in cases where the council had proper information that somebody had been off sick and was flouting the rules - such as taking on a second paid job.
She also wanted guarantees that all staff would be told about the policy and that it was clearly explained to them.
A spokeswoman for the council said: “This policy will allow suitably trained council officers to look into suspicious absences in the most appropriate manner following careful consideration of all the facts.
“Compared with some other public sector employers, our sickness rate is low. This is because we actively support our staff to minimise illness, in the long term providing a more efficient service and the best possible value for council taxpayers.”
Asked whether there was an issue with “sickies” at the council and whether there had been any investigations in the past year, the council declined to divulge any details citing “confidentiality issues”.
Local government and surveillance in light of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000):
n Local authorities can carry out “directed surveillance” which is covert but not intrusive, including the taking of photographs or other images from a distance.
n Councils can also apply for “authorisation” to carry out “covert surveillance” which includes interception of postal and telephone communications.
n Surveillance in residential premises or in private vehicles is classed as “intrusive” surveillance and requires authorisation from, in the case of local authorities, the chief executive.
n Phone tapping and interfering with property - such as installing listening devices - can only be carried out by the intelligence services, the police, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and HM Customs and Excise.