STAFF absences at Cumbria County Council are ‘very disappointing’ with calls made to ‘discipline or dismiss’ those abusing the system, a meeting has heard.

Cllr Phil Dew claimed some employees ‘made a career out of being sick’ yet there was a ‘culture of tolerance’ of staff sickness in the public sector, he said.

It followed an admission that a target to improve staff attendance at the county council during 2018-19 had been missed ‘yet again,’ he said.

The figures show that the council set a target for 10 working days lost but, on average, staff had 12.4 days off.

However, his remarks prompted a cutting response from council officials who challenged him to back up his statements with evidence.

The debate was sparked as the Conservative councillor for Kirkby Stephen questioned Cllr Janet Willis, the Liberal Democrat cabinet member for transformation.

Cllr Dew said staff being off ill impacted on the public using services and heaped pressure on those left behind to plug the gaps.

“Can you assure me that this administration has the determination necessary to address this chronic problem – providing support and understanding where required but also disciplining or even dismissing those who habitually and persistently abuse the system, and to be truthful, making a career out of being sick,” said Cllr Dew.

“My concern is that in public institutions there is often a culture of tolerance towards workplace absence which is hard to justify. Such absences impact not just on service users but also on colleagues who have to provide cover,” said Cllr Dew.

Cllr Willis said the council took the issue of staff absences ‘very seriously,’ and that a panel of councillors was scrutinising the issue very closely.

The council now had more reliable data than ever before to help managers at the authority tackle the issue, she said.

Cllr Willis told him: “I do not feel it is appropriate to make comments that people are making a career out of absence.

“If you have evidence of that, please bring it to me and I will look into it. It’s for individual managers to manage. If you think that is not happening, and you have evidence of that, then I think it would be appropriate to bring it to me as the cabinet member and not make such announcements in public.”

Cllr Bill Wearing, chairman of the county council’s scrutiny management board, reassured councillors that the issue was firmly on its radar.

“The issue of management of staff absences will be looked at in detail in a deep dive,” said Cllr Wearing.

In December, it was found that sickness cost the county council an estimated £6million a year.

Yet back then, managers stressed that 90 per cent of the 5,500 workforce had full attendance, while some had long-term serious illnesses.

Previously, council bosses have pointed out that more than 2,000 staff are employed in the authority’s care arm.

The sector has strict rules about staff not passing on illnesses to vulnerable people in care homes.

Staff with flu-like illnesses were obliged to stay off for at least 48 hours after the symptoms had passed.

Six months ago, Paul Robinson, the council’s assistant director for organisational change, challenged the use of Tory councillor saying some staff were “skiving.”

Mr Robinson said :”I genuinely don’t think we have a culture of skiving. I am confident the county council has a genuine understanding of whether someone is genuinely ill and where some of the workplace environment is causing people to be off, whether that’s anxiety, stress or musculoskeletal issues.”