Call for probe into lieu time for fire chiefs

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A FIRE authority shelved a public report into senior officers being allocated hundreds of hours of lieu time, a decision which ultimately led to a deputy chief receiving an extra £12,500 for working during strikes when he left the service in February.

South Yorkshire chief officer Jamie Courtney said top officers were “automatically entitled” to up to seven weeks in lieu time and public discussion by the local fire authority wasn’t necessary.

Mr Courtney insisted the generous recompense did not require “permission” because councillors on the authority had previously required chief officers to repay tens of thousands of pounds in overtime for the same work.

South Yorkshire Fire Authority said it decided to shelve a report on the issue in consultation with Mr Courtney.

After securing the entitlement, deputy chief officer John Roberts was paid £12,500 for untaken lieu time when he left to become West Yorkshire’s chief in February. News of the payment reignited controversy over why and how South Yorkshire’s chief officers have been rewarded for working during industrial action when contractually they are expected to be available for work at all times.

Sheffield South East Labour MP Clive Betts has pressed Mr Courtney, who received a salary package of £187,000 in 2015/16, to provide evidence from chief officers’ contracts or employment law for the basis for lieu time.

He wants the external auditor to investigate unless there is clear justification.

Mr Betts, who has written and spoken to the chief officer, said: “I want to see, in writing, specifically how there is an entitlement to time off in lieu given the audit committee said there was no entitlement to pay (overtime) in the first place.”

Mr Courtney has subsequently referred the MP’s questions to South Yorkshire Fire Authority’s clerk, Diana Terris, who is yet to respond.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed a report drawn up by Julia Bell, the fire authority’s HR director, proposed both officers should receive 30 days in lieu of overtime payments.

The proposal, which is highly unusual and potentially unique to the fire service, was pulled before local councillors had the opportunity to discuss it.

In an email to head of internal audit, Mr Courtney said there was no need for a report.

Instead, Mr Courtney’s suggested wording approving the entitlement as a matter of fact was ultimately placed, unchanged, in a public agenda.

Mr Courtney’s correspondence said: “My point being that we should be informing members of this, not asking for 
permission.

“This was why we did not want the paper prepared for the last Audit Committee to go forward.”

Asked who decided to shelve the report, the authority’s deputy clerk, Martin McCarthy, said: “The decision was taken by the clerk, monitoring officer and head of HR in consultation with the chief fire officer.”

It remains unclear what the final entitlement to lieu time is based on. Over a year ago, serving chief officers in South Yorkshire agreed to repay tens of thousands in overtime payments for working during nationwide strikes between 2013 and 2015 after it emerged former fire authority chairman Jim Andrews secretly approved them without the knowledge of any other member of the authority.

But, after obtaining the repayment agreement, audit committee minutes indicate Ms Terris, Mr Courtney and then deputy chief Mr Roberts discussed an alternative arrangement. The FOI response did not include any emails or other recorded information relating to their discussions and the authority has insisted none exists.

When opposition councillors wrote to Ms Terris to ask on what basis the entitlement was approved they were told: “The assessment of the contractual position resulted from human resources advice taken by the Chief Fire Officer.” She added: “The position is not expressly covered in terms and conditions but it needs to be recognised what the reality of the position was under employment law…”

When Sheffield Lib Dem Steve Ayris and Doncaster Conservative Cynthia Ransome wrote back asking for details of the advice and what employment law was being cited, Ms Terris said she would not communicate further with them on the issue.

AN email from South Yorkshire’s chief fire officer laid out why he and his deputy were “automatically entitled” to hundreds of hours off in lieu time as recompense for having to repay a combined £27,815 in overtime pay for working during strikes.

Jamie Courtney also stated how the entitlement should be presented in a public agenda and rejected the idea there was a need for permission from the local fire authority members, who are meant to provide public oversight.

The email to Rob Winter, the authority’s head of internal audit, said: “I am of the opinion that, having been required by members to repay contingency remuneration earned through additional hours worked during periods of industrial action, we are automatically entitled to reclaim those hours worked, if only at a flat rate.

“Such is the consequence of the decision made.

“My point being that we should be informing members of this, not asking for permission.

“This was why we did not want the paper prepared for the last Audit Committee to go forward.

“I would like the update to Recommendation 8 to simply say: ‘Officers are entitled to reclaim the overtime hours worked and will do so, on a time for time basis, over a period of time.’”

Shortly afterwards, the agenda for the audit committee on 25 July last year was drawn up and included Mr Courtney’s exact wording.

No report on the lieu time – which the authority previously agreed would be presented – ever appeared on any agenda. A report written by the authority’s human resources director, included in the FOI response, which was due to go on a committee agenda last May acknowledged chief fire officers had no specific contractual entitlement to lieu time.

Julia Bell’s report, which was withdrawn from the agenda, detailed the extra hours chief officers had worked during strikes between 2013 and 2015, including Mr Courtney who had worked 294.5 hours or what was calculated as nearly 37 days extra.

But in a nod to the contractual expectation chief officers work whatever hours required, the report said: “Accepting that the CFO (chief fire officer) does not work a standard week and is expected, in normal circumstances to be available when required, it is proposed to reduce this to 30 days time back in lieu.”

The final arrangement saw Mr Courtney and deputy chief John Roberts receive every hour of lieu time which they were allowed to take at their convenience, rather than 30 days spread evenly over three years as recommended in Ms Bell’s report.

The fire authority said the decision to shelve the report was made by the clerk, monitoring officer and Ms Bell in consultation with Mr Courtney.

It remains unclear why the authority decided to give its two chief officers hundreds of hours of lieu time though it is understood officials maintain there is a contractual entitlement despite there being no reference to lieu time or overtime in chief officers’ contracts.

Mr Courtney had been required to repay £14,390 in overtime and his deputy John Roberts £13,425 after it emerged the deal was secretly agreed by former fire authority chairman Jim Andrews, without the knowledge of any other councillor on the authority.