May 23: Fire chiefs and public interest, credit card spree needs justifying

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THE expenditure incurred on fire service corporate credit cards becomes even more disturbing when placed in the context of the public finances – and the need for efficiency savings.

At a time of spending cuts, how can Humberside Fire and Rescue Service defend spending £507 of taxpayers’ money on Christmas cards?

It does not end here – the records of the West Yorkshire brigade show that the same credit card was used to make a significant number of cash withdrawals, and pay for meals, during the flooding emergency in the early part of last year. This expenditure is at odds with other fire services which did not incur similar expenses at the same incidents. And then there is South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service which spent £45,902.46 on business visits to the upmarket Marina Hotel in Kuwait City.

Of course there will always be occasions when senior officers need this payment facility – and this is borne out by the very modest use of such credit cards in North Yorkshire. Yet it is clear that other forces seem to have forgotten that they are a publicly-funded service and have a moral duty to spend money wisely at all times, even more so at a time when some fire stations are being threatened with closure.

Now these details are in the public domain, it is imperative that every last penny of expenditure on the cards in question is properly accounted for and an explanation provided for some of the more eye-watering extravagances, like use of an exclusive hotel located within the shadow of Buckingham Palace. Have officials not heard of websites like Governance arrangements also need to be reviewed as a matter of urgency – and transparency.

For, while senior officers should enjoy some discretion, this right does not extend to the largesse revealed today and which appears to be at odds with the public interest.

In the slow lane

AS DRIVERS bemoan the state of Britain’s roads this Bank Holiday weekend, their mood is unlikely to be helped by a new Department for Transport report which confirms that just 54 miles of new motorway has been built since David Cameron came to power in 2010.

Yet, while this rate of road building compares unfavourably to past premiers with the notable exception of Gordon Brown, some context is required – Mr Cameron’s premiership has seen a marked increase in the number of motorways, like the M1 and M62, which are being widened in order to increase capacity. Given the cost of building new motorways from scratch, this is a necessary compromise.

However, it does not excuse the fact that Mr Cameron’s government is still stuck in the slow lane when it comes to the upgrade of two major roads in this county. Five years ago, there were hints that the A1 would be upgraded to motorway standard throughout North and South Yorkshire – a promise reaffirmed in last December’s Autumn Statement.

It was also mentioned again on April 27 when Chancellor George Osborne’s timetable for the first 100 days of a Conservative majority government included “upgrading the A1 in Yorkshire to motorway”. Rather than recycling announcements, Ministers need to start to honour their promises. And, at the same time, they need to upgrade the A64 from York to the East Coast – one of the worst bottlenecks of all. It speaks volumes about the slow rate of progress that this route needed overhauling before Messrs Cameron and Osborne were even born.

Hull of a challenge

HULL City’s predicament on the final weekend of the Premier League season could not be more perilous. Not only do the Tigers need to beat Manchester United, one of the world’s biggest clubs, but they also need West Ham United to do them a favour and thwart Newcastle United’s own escape bid. It’s that tight.

It’s a task made even harder by the fact that Hull’s boss, Steve Bruce, has yet to beat the Red Devils, the club he served with such distinction during his playing days, in 21 previous attempts as a manager. There will never be a better time to end the jinx – this game is, in many respects, bigger than last season’s FA Cup final because of the Premier League’s global prestige.

And Hull’s survival is also important in the wider of context of Yorkshire sport. For, despite the brilliance of this county’s Olympians, footballing success has been more spasmodic – a state of affairs that can be rectified tomorrow afternoon in the most dramatic circumstances of all.