Reducing staff absenteeism at Birmingham City Council below an average of nine days a year for each employee is proving almost impossible, it was admitted last night.

Alan Rudge made the claim after it emerged that illness among the council's 55,000-strong workforce is increasing after a decline for three years.

Absenteeism rose in the early part of the year, fell back but then jumped again in September, putting at risk a target for 2006/07 of 9.5 days per employee. New figures for November indicated a fall to 9.06 days.

The comparable average figure for private sector companies is 4.5 days.

The rise is the first setback in a concerted effort to control sickness at Britain's largest local authority, which has seen Birmingham move from being the worst performer, at nearly 20 days per employee, to the best among large UK metropolitan councils, at 10.

Coun Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) said efforts to reduce the numbers on long-term sickness proved successful. He was now targeting short term illness, particularly where a pattern of taking one or two days a month could be detected.

He doubted whether it would be possible to move as low as nine days per employee.

This was due chiefly to issues in schools, where the council's 20,000 teachers, assistants and support staff are advised to remain at home if suffering from a contagious illness. Similarly, social services staff working with the elderly are likely to stay at home.

Coun Rudge added: "A target of 9.5 is realistic but depends on what happens in the schools during winter. Last year there was a flu outbreak that skewed the figures.

"To get it any lower is almost impossible given the nature of the workforce. It would be very difficult."

He intends to look closely at "long weekend" absences on Fridays and Mondays, but stressed disciplinary action would have to be processed through consultation with unions.

"Our record is far superior to other metropolitan councils, but we would like it to be better. However, there is no easy way to change the workforce. We have to be careful because obviously a lot of people are genuinely ill," he added.

The increase in sickness is part of a mixed record for the council in meeting Government targets. While 79 per cent of key performance indicator targets are on track, the performance has dropped since early summer when 84 per cent were on track.

On the plus side the number of children obtaining good GCSEs is above target, the time taken to transfer elderly people from acute hospital beds is improving and crime in Birmingham is lower than any comparable city.

However, only 38 per cent of performance targets in children's and adult social services are being met.

Unemployment in Birmingham remains stubbornly high. The gap between the number of people out of work in the five worst wards and the city average increased to 13.3 per cent in September, from 12.7 per cent in March. The target is 11.5 per cent.

Deputy council leader Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem Sheldon) said: "Birmingham is now the UK's safest major city. Let's not lose sight of that.

"However, we are not complacent. There are a number of issues where we are falling behind which I have to take up at my quarterly interviews with strategic directors."

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