Former council leader calls for fire chiefs to repay overtime cash

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THE former leader of Sheffield Council has publicly challenged South Yorkshire’s chief fire officers to repay tens of thousands of pounds they received in controversial overtime payments.

Lord Scriven, who was also formerly a member of South Yorkshire Fire Authority, has written an open letter to Jamie Courtney, the chief fire officer, asking whether they have repaid the money and pressed for an explanation if they are refusing to do so.

Separate from the letter he additionally called on Mr Courtney and the fire authority chairman, Jim Andrews, to resign.

The move follows a recommendation from the authority’s audit committee on Monday that “in view of the importance of maintaining public confidence” chief officers should consider repayment.

The payments to the officers were unofficially and solely approved by Coun Andrews, who is also deputy leader of Barnsley Council. The chiefs were paid overtime for working during a series of nationwide strikes between September 2013 and February this year – without the knowledge of any other councillors on the authority.

An internal audit investigation found Coun Andrews did not have the power to authorise the payments but said legal advice concluded they were lawful.

Overtime was paid at nearly £50 an hour with Mr Courtney receiving an extra £14,390 on top of his £185,000 salary package, while his deputy Mark Shaw, who retired earlier this year, received £14,820 and the assistant chief John Roberts, who is now deputy, a further £13,425.

Lord Scriven criticised the level of scrutiny in the internal audit and questioned why he had not been interviewed as a former senior fire authority member. The audit revealed former chief officers had also received smaller overtime payments during an earlier dispute in 2009, again without proper approval, but said on that occasion they had been discussed with the Chairs’ Group which was made up of senior authority members.

However Lord Scriven said: “I was a member of the Chairs’ Group and I was never asked about or briefed about the payments. It was never brought to my attention.”

His open letter to Mr Courtney refers to the recommendation chief officers consider repaying their overtime and says: “Could I ask you have you yet done so or of you intend to do so by when will you make the repayments?

“If you have decided not to, can I ask you what your reasons are and why you feel you should keep the payments?”

He told The Yorkshire Post: “The only way this will be solved will be for the two people who no longer have the confidence of the service and the people of South Yorkshire – the chairman and the chief fire officer – to go.”

Coun Andrews did not respond to a request to comment. Chief officers are normally expected to be continuously available for duty but Coun Andrews has previously stated he approved the payments because working during the strikes was above and beyond their contractual duties.

Mr Courtney was unavailable for comment. A South Yorkshire Fire Service spokesman said: “The chief officers are considering the recommendations of the audit committee ahead of the full fire authority meeting in January.”

Coun Andrews is expected to receive a challenge to his position at the meeting on January 4. Mr Courtney is also likely to be present and may face questioning about his own actions over the payments.