10,000 council staff in England stuck on sick leave, Lib Dems say

Woman feeling ill
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Nearly 10,000 council staff in England are stuck on long-term sick leave with the number rising by a fifth since 2019, the Liberal Democrats say.

Figures obtained by the party suggest six in 10 councils have seen a rise in their numbers of long-term sick.

The Lib Dems say the government needs to cut NHS waiting lists urgently so people can return to work faster.

Last week, Rishi Sunak outlined plans to tackle a "sick note culture", including making it harder to get one.

The prime minister said he wanted to strip GPs of their power to sign people off work, arguing that claiming benefits had become a "lifestyle choice" for some.

The government said its "£2.5bn Back to Work Plan will help over a million people, including those with long-term health conditions, to break down barriers to work".

To get people off long-term sick leave the government is "providing the NHS with record funding of nearly £165bn a year by the end of this Parliament", a spokesperson added.

Labour said the government had run out of ideas, while charity Scope described his plans as "a full-on assault on disabled people" driven by cutting costs.

Elections are taking place for 107 local councils across England on 2 May.

The Lib Dems sent freedom of information (FOI) requests to all 317 councils in England, with 185 providing responses.

The number of staff on long-term sick leave totalled 9,979, up 18% on a figure of 8,441 in 2019, the party said.

Long-term sick leave is defined by the government as four or more weeks of absence because of sickness.

For 58% of the local authorities which responded to the FOI requests, more employees were off work because of long-term sickness than in 2019. Ninety-eight of the 185 councils had more people off for this reason than in 2023.

Worst-hit was crisis-hit Birmingham City Council with 561 staff members on long-term sickness, up from 390 in 2019. Leeds City Council had 425 off, up from 254 in 2019.

Only four councils had no staff on long-term sick leave: West Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Rushmoor and Copeland.

Across the UK, a record 2.8m people are off work with long-term sickness, official figures show.

According to the Lib Dems, all sectors of the economy, including private sector companies and the NHS itself, have staff on sick leave because workers are waiting to get the health care they need.

The party has previously said that almost 12,000 key workers across the UK, including nurses, police officers and firefighters, were stuck on long-term sick leave.

Local government spokesperson Helen Morgan said the prime minister was blaming staff who were ill, while neglecting the NHS.

"These figures reveal a long-term sickness epidemic hitting local councils across the country," she said.

"Council staff are working hard every day to deliver for their local communities while facing the stress of government funding cuts and having to operate on a shoestring."

The Conservatives have been approached for comment.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around 2m people are employed in local government across the UK.