Exclusive: Auditors probe legality of South Yorkshire fire service overtime payments

AN investigation into controversial overtime payments to chief fire officers revealed by The Yorkshire Post will examine whether they were lawful, it has emerged.

Fire Service.Generic Fire engine and Fire service officers for Scarborough.Picture Richard Ponter 132217c

The external auditor to South Yorkshire Fire Authority, John Cornett, will also consider whether the authority followed its own governance rules when agreeing overtime payments to three chief officers for working during a series of strikes over a pensions dispute which hit the fire service nationwide.

The payments, which totalled nearly £40,000 in 2014/15 and were outside nationally-agreed terms and conditions, appear to have been approved by the authority’s chairman, Jim Andrews, without the knowledge of other authority members and without being formally recorded.

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Mr Cornett, from accountancy firm KPMG, told a meeting of the authority that he was now delaying a scheduled sign-off of the 2014/15 annual accounts until the investigation had concluded. He added that his work may supersede inquiries being carried out by the authority’s internal audit team if there is a questionmark over the payments’ legality.

The moves follow revelations that South Yorkshire’s chief fire officer Jamie Courtney received an extra £14,390 on top of his £185,000 pay package while former deputy chief Mark Shaw and assistant chief John Roberts, both paid well in excess of £100,000, received an extra £13,290 and £11,520 respectively.

It was also revealed Mr Courtney and Mr Shaw, who retired at the end of March, were paid for more overtime hours than were actually taken up by the strikes.

A series of fire authority members, including audit committee chairwoman Sioned-Mair Richards, said they were unaware of the payments.

Mr Cornett told the audit committee: “There are three fundamental questions for me to consider before concluding the audit of accounts.

“The first of those is the legality of the payments that have been made; the second is the extent to which the authority followed its own governance arrangements; the third is the completeness and the accuracy of those payments.”

The auditor said he couldn’t put a timescale on his deliberations, adding the main focus was on inquiries being “complete and robust.”

Fire authority chairman Jim Andrews, who is also deputy leader of Barnsley Council, has previously told the Yorkshire Post he couldn’t recall when he approved the payments but stood by the decision because chief officers were expected to do work outside their normal duties during strikes.

However, it is believed no other fire authority in the country paid overtime to chief officers. More than 15 services across the country contacted by the Yorkshire Post confirmed no similar payments were made with some pointing out no overtime would be paid as chief officers are expected to be available for duty at any time throughout the year.