Cotswold District Council is under pressure to enforce a £19,000 money-back guarantee by motivational magician Shay McConnon following a surge in staff sickness rates.
The demand was made today by Liberal Democrat opposition leader, Cllr Paul Hodgkinson, in reaction to new figures showing that, on average, officers are now taking more than nine days off annually because of sickness.
This has placed Tory-controlled CDC at number 142 in the league table of 201 shire councils nationally for staff absences.
In a written answer to a question from Cllr Hodgkinson, Council Leader, Lynden Stowe revealed that, since Mr McConnon’s “Even Better Place to Work” programme started in 2010, overall sickness rates have followed an upward trend, from 6.91 per full time employee then, to 8.46 in 2011-12 and 9.11 last year.
Short term sickness rates, now running at five days per employee compared with 5.8 in the previous year, show a slight decline but are still 20% above the council’s target figure of four days.
The council magician hit the national headlines two years ago when it emerged that the council had hired Mr McConnon, a member of the Magic Circle, who, according to his website “uses magic in his keynotes as visual metaphors.”
In June 2011, in response to an attack on CDC by journalist Andrew Gilligan in an article headed: “Local councils and taxpayers’ cash: now you see it, now you don’t”, Cllr Stowe wrote to the Daily Telegraph defending the expenditure.
His letter promised: “If the programme does not deliver the expected benefits (lower absence rates and higher staff performance and satisfaction levels), Mr MConnon has offered to waive the entire cost.”
Cllr Hodgkinson said: “The absence figures are deeply worrying and suggest that we still have a problem with staff morale.
“I accept that the administration has little control over long-term sickness but the statistics indicate that some of this is due to work-related stress which is exactly the sort of thing I would have expected this programme to tackle.
“Short term absences should be showing a substantial decline according to what we were promised but they are not.”
Cllr Hodgkinson said the Council had a duty to seek reimbursement of taxpayers’ cash.
“Cllr Stowe really has no choice over this,” he said. “He gave a firm undertaking, published in the Daily Telegraph, and the taxpayers of the Cotswolds now expect him to enforce the guarantee.
He added: “We have always said it was a folly to spend this money during a recession and the disappointing sickness rates confirm that belief.”
The decision to engage Mr McConnon was taken by the council’s Chief Executive using delegated powers which allowed him to spend up to £20,000 without reference to elected councillors.
The Chief Executive, whose services are shared with neighbouring West Oxfordshire District Council, also hired Mr McConnon there at a cost of £30,000.
The CDC contract only came to light after Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles instructed all councils to publish expenditure over £500. It was discovered by a member of the public searching through data on the council website.