An audit report to Humberside Fire Authority, obtained by the Yorkshire Post, highlighted a lack of transparency and accountability around chief officers’ outside business interests and made a series of recommendations including the urgent creation of a publicly available register of interests for officers at the most senior level.
The probe found neither Chris Blacksell nor Phil Shillito, Humberside’s chief and deputy chief fire officer respectively, benefited financially from their company and no evidence of an intention to contravene established ethical standards in the public sector, known as the Nolan Principles.
But the report also said: “Shortcomings in the Authority and the HFRS (Humberside Fire and Rescue Service) governance arrangements in relation to the Nolan Principles were however identified which could give rise to a perception of possible impropriety.”
Fire authority chairman John Briggs said the findings had been accepted in full and all its recommendations, which also include creating a code of conduct for chief officers, would be implemented immediately. The report, which was delivered to a private meeting of the fire authority, has so far not been made publicly available but will be published after consideration by the authority’s scrutiny committee on 12 April.
The inquiry followed the receipt of whistleblowing allegations about both the private company and how both chief officers had become so-called ‘boomerang bosses’ by being allowed to retire and then return to their highly-paid jobs a month later. The move allowed them to access six-figure lump sum pension payments and receive increases in their take home pay as employee pension contributions are no longer required.
The fire authority allowed Mr Blacksell, whose salary was £147,000 in 2019/20, and Mr Shillito, who received £125,000, to retire and return in 2018 and last year respectively.
Auditors found the chief officers’ re-engagement followed proper processes but highlighted concerns around transparency with regard to chief officers’ outside business interests which currently only require permission from the fire authority or have to be declared if they involve trading directly with the fire service.
Mr Blacksell and Mr Shillito’s business interest began when each became 20 per cent shareholders and directors of Ignis Holdings Ltd when the company was incorporated on 31 October 2019. In turn, Ignis wholly owned two separate companies, set up a day later, providing fire safety services - Fortifire Fire and Safety Ltd and Fortifire Fire Door Testing Ltd.
The audit report said the accountant for Ignis and Fortifire told the investigation neither Mr Blacksell nor Mr Shillito received any payment via either company before they resigned their business interests in October 2020.
When the business arrangements first emerged at the end of last year, both chief officers said they had resigned their interest when they decided it was no longer viable.
The inquiry, carried out by the fire authority’s auditors TIAA, did find Fortifire obtained business from Humberside Fire and Rescue (HFR) Solutions, a community interest company closely linked to the fire service, and where Mr Blacksell was an unpaid director. However, the report said it was understood Mr Blacksell had declared his interest and had played no role in Fortifire being engaged by HFR Solutions. The chief officer has since resigned from the HFR Solutions board but this is unconnected to the investigation.
As well as a register of interests and code of conduct, the report also recommended rules around outside employment should be included in future chief officers’ employment contracts and chief officers should undergo annual training on the Nolan Principles.