PAYMENTS of more than £42,000 to chief fire officers for working overtime during strikes over the last two years were withheld from public scrutiny because they were considered too “sensitive”, an inquiry has found.
An internal audit report has also revealed former South Yorkshire chiefs received smaller overtime payments for working during a previous strike in 2009 but that these were also kept from councillors on the fire authority on the same grounds.
The inquiry, ordered after an exposé by The Yorkshire Post in September, found “the process and procedures adopted for the payment of Principal Officers… lacked the appropriate transparency and consequently demonstrated a failure in the governance arrangements of the authority”.
It found the fire authority chairman, Barnsley deputy council leader Jim Andrews, agreed to the payments during an informal meeting with chief fire officer Jamie Courtney. It was thought the meeting took place between September and November 2013, between the first and second of what became a series of strikes which ended this February.
No one else on the fire authority – which is largely made up of councillors from Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster – was made aware of the agreement which the report said drew on the precedent from 2009, which was also not reported to the authority.
South Yorkshire’s chief fire officer, Jamie Courtney, received £14,390 on top of his £185,000 salary package, while his deputy Mark Shaw, who retired this year, received £14,820 and the assistant chief John Roberts, now deputy, a further £13,425.
The report, which will be considered by a special audit committee meeting on Monday, says interviews with senior officials involved in 2009 as well as 2013 revealed an awareness the payments were contentious.
At one point it says: “A number of the emails that have been examined during the review from the former DCFO (Mark Shaw) stress the sensitivity of the matter and urging that the details were not discussed.”
At another, it highlights comments from the former head of finance, about payments in 2009, which said “the need for careful tactics around managing the situation may well have been a contributory factor in why the issue of payments was discussed somewhat less formally. He added that there were concerns that a formal report would be leaked to the press and general public domain given the loyalty of some Members at that time to the FBU (Fire Brigades Union)”.
As well as the lack of public scrutiny, the extra pay is controversial because contractually chief fire officers are expected to be continuously available for duty and no other chief officers are believed to have received overtime payments.
The report says one other, unnamed fire authority was found to have made an ex-gratia payment to chief fire officers after the strikes though it does not provide the amount. The Yorkshire Post previously contacted 17 fire services across the country, including the other three in Yorkshire, and none had made overtime payments.
The South Yorkshire payments were justified on the basis the chief officers were carrying out operational duties outside their normal managerial roles with the report stating there were fewer staff than in other service areas.
The arrangement has been challenged by veteran Sheffield MP Clive Betts who said the pay senior public officials receive is a reflection of them being expected to work when required to.