Cambridgeshire Fire Service has hit headlines with reports that another senior fire officer has been offered the opportunity to retire from the service and pick up a sizable pension windfall before being rehired back into the service just weeks later.

Only three weeks after I wrote to Sir Peter Brown, Chairman of Cambridgeshire Fire Authority to request details of the decision to the re-engage Fire Chief Graham Stagg, who had previously been paid a salary and pension package of around £200,000, we learn that his assistant fire chief Neil Newberry has been handed the option of a similar ‘retirement’ plan.

This news comes on top of a letter I received from Sir Peter Brown this morning confirming that a total of 7 officers, ranging from Fire-Fighter to Station Commander status have benefited from this ‘re-engagement’ programme at an undisclosed cost to the taxpayer.

The Fire Brigades Union has described this revolving door system as a “double-pay pension pay-off” and is right to raise questions about the value for money implications

The issue here is not just officers receiving generous ‘golden parachute’ payouts only to be reinstated weeks later. The lack of transparency surrounding Graham Stagg’s return to his post also led Fire Minister Brandon Lewis to question why he was paid a basic salary of £168,702 last year, which is well above the recommended minimum £94,638 for Officers of his rank (Link to Minister’s letter 13-11-07 – BL to Sir Peter Brown)

That figure is even more eyebrow-raising when you consider that Mr Stagg is the fifth highest paid Chief Fire officer in the country when he is in charge of the twenty-fifth largest force. To put that in context, the incoming chief of the NHS is expected to receive a salary of £189,000 when he assumes general oversight of a workforce of 1.4 million.

There is clearly wild discrepancy in pay scales here, and Cambridgeshire taxpayers would be well within their rights to ask for an across the board review of salary and benefits paid out to Fire Service personnel, especially regarding the take-home of senior officers.

I have repeatedly highlighted Cambridgeshire Fire Authority’s cavalier approach to public money; just last year I was baffled to discover that the authority employed 6 full time press officers and a fleet of 43 cars for staff use (see my previous blog entry on fire service efficiency here).

This latest episode serves to underline the risk that the Fire Services in Cambridgeshire have lost touch with the public they serve. Senior officers appear able to play the system for their own benefit, at the direct expense of those they are charged with protecting.

It is clear that the current governance of Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service is not working. It needs to change and I will write again on this issue shortly. In the meantime, all members of the Fire Authority should reflect on why they are paying so much to those managing what is a small rural fire and rescue service.

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