Suspended council staff in east of England paid £2m

By Laurence Cawley
BBC News

image captionThere have been calls for suspended staff to be given other duties rather than staying at home

Suspended council staff were paid more than £2m to "twiddle their thumbs" in the eastern region in the past five years, it has emerged.

And local authorities say the total sum will be far higher because the figures did not include schools.

The amount paid out has triggered calls for suspended staff to be given other duties rather than staying at home.

Unison said the main focus should be on dealing "swiftly and thoroughly" with allegations while staff are suspended.

Across the eastern region, more than 470 county council workers have received full pay while suspended.

The figures, requested under freedom of information laws, do not include the region's borough and district councils, with the exception of Bedford.

And, not all county councils provided figures for all five years, with Buckinghamshire declining to provide any details and others providing data for fewer years.

'Austere times'

At Suffolk County Council, 132 people were suspended on full pay between 2008 and 2012.

A spokesman for the council said suspensions were "rare" given the 5,571 employees at the authority.

"Suffolk County Council expects the highest level of professionalism and behaviour from staff and any alleged failures to meet these expectations are investigated thoroughly," he said.

"In some cases, and to ensure investigations are conducted fairly, it is necessary for a member of staff to be suspended."

Mark Ereira, the Conservative-led authority's Green and Independent group leader, said: "Councils have a very real responsibility to use every last penny of taxpayer's money wisely, especially in these austere times of cutbacks and added pressures.

"The endemic use of so-called 'gardening leave' for suspended staff is not an acceptable way to continue.

"I am sure it is possible for council managers to be creative and use the skills of staff suspended in other areas of the council's work, or even organise placements in local hard-pressed voluntary organisations so that suspended staff are not left twiddling their thumbs for months on end at the taxpayers expense."

'Emotional impact'

Roger Lord, the leader of the UKIP party on neighbouring Essex County Council, said: "Volunteering would be absolutely ideal.

"There are lots of organisations the county council supports and a secondment to one of them cost-free, or to a charity, isn't doing anyone any harm."

The idea was described as "novel and attractive" by employment lawyer Martin Hopkins, of Birkett Long in Chelmsford. But also an idea that is riddled with potential legal issues, he said.

If the reason for the suspension is that the worker has been accused of gross misconduct then, said Mr Hopkins, the employer would probably not want the employee around while the matter was being investigated.

Allowing the suspended worker to continue working for them in another capacity, he said, might also undermine the employer's case should they eventually decide to dismiss them.

There might also be issues for the member of staff suspended, he said.

"But I can see a way around it," added Mr Hopkins. "As often in employment law, it comes down to reasonableness, and each case would have to be looked at on its own particular facts.

"I can see that it might reduce the impact on the member of staff if they were allowed to come back and do something, and the taxpayer would be getting something for their money."

Ann Glover, Unison's eastern regional head of local government, said: "Suspension is considered a neutral act. But the emotional impact on the individual is something that should not be underestimated.

"Some might welcome the idea of doing something in the workplace. It depends on the nature of the allegation and there are no hard and fast rules."

The idea of offering suspended staff volunteering roles, however, did "not sit well" with Ms Glover.

"I think it is in the interests of everybody that investigations are dealt with as swiftly as possible," she said.

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