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Avon Fire Authority 'old boys club' criticised

Avon Fire Authority is accused of being run for the benefit of senior officers, not the community
Image caption Avon Fire Authority is accused of being run for the benefit of senior officers, not the community

The leadership of Avon Fire Authority is undermining its duties to the public and should be replaced, a Home Office report says.

It unearthed an "old boys club" culture where senior officers enjoyed big pay rises and enhanced pensions.

The report found there was a perception that bullying and harassment was "endemic".

Authority chair Donald Davies said "mistakes have been made and cannot be ignored".

Independent investigator for the Home Office Craig Baker examined a period of six years from 2011.

He said inflated pay and pension payments "placed a new and significant burden on the public purse and did not support the economic, efficient or effective use of resources".

He added the authority had "not exercised appropriate levels of scrutiny for some time" which led to "expensive mistakes" being made.

'Illusory sacrifice'

Mr Baker said there was a "failure of [authority] members to challenge adequately either the officers or the papers that were presented".

Some of those questioned by the investigator "considered the authority as lacking drive, and seemed largely to be 'an old boys club', with little discussion of matters of importance, and excessive concerns over minor items".

Senior officers, including the chief fire officer, enjoyed rises of up to 8% while firefighters' pay was capped, he found.

Image caption Chief fire officer Kevin Pearson's pay cut in 2011 was deemed an 'illusory sacrifice'

In one instance in March 2011, officials on the authority's Special Purposes Committee (SPC) agreed a reduction in pay of 22% for chief fire officer, Kevin Pearson.

But Mr Pearson was able to claim on his pension to cancel out the reduction, making the pay cut an "illusory sacrifice".

In another "highly unusual arrangement" in 2011, deputy chief fire officer Jerry O'Brien spent 12 months on gardening leave with a £25,000 allowance which boosted his final salary pension and lump sum.

Meanwhile, the report found "a perceived view that bullying and harassment was endemic in the organisation".

"This is a serious cultural issue for the authority that leaders must address as a matter of priority," it said.

Image caption Nick Wilton and Anna Villette say they have been vindicated in raising concerns

In conclusion, Mr Baker said: "I believe lack of change amongst senior management has gone beyond the point of stability and continuity.

"Because key people in senior management positions have been in post for so long, legacy issues cannot be dealt with effectively.

"I conclude that it is now time for the leadership of the authority to be revitalised in order to drive improvements in economy, efficiency and effectiveness."

Pensions expert Tom McPhail from Hargreaves Lansdown said: "The increase in their pension rights would have paid for a pay rise for the entire authority fire service of 2% a year for every firefighter working in the authority."

But the authority says a national pay cap of 1%, in place at the time, meant they would have been unable to pay other firefighters more.

'Money wasted'

Anna Villette, a professional advisor to a former Avon firefighter, said people would be "pretty appalled" at the "handsome" pay increases given.

"So much public money has been quite frankly wasted on senior officers salaries and pension enhancement," she said.

North Somerset councillor Nick Wilton, who sits on the Avon Fire Authority, added senior officers in public service "should be held to a higher standard in terms of their ethical performance".

The chair of the authority at the time of the pay rises, Terry Walker, insisted everyone was aware of the chief's pension plans and "many benefited from the same policy".

Councillor Donald Davies, Chair of Avon Fire Authority, said the report made "difficult reading".

"Mistakes have been made in the past and they cannot be ignored," he said.

"The biggest frustration to me is that in the past, when our budgets were not as squeezed as they are today, money was wasted.

"This is money that could have been better spent and I will ensure this won't be allowed to happen again.

"Now is the time for the Members of Avon Fire Authority to work together and show the leadership which has been lacking in the past."

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) warned that recommendations for change at the authority must not be a "smokescreen for cuts".

Tam McFarlane from the FBU in the South West said: "At a time when all fire services have seen massive budget cuts we need guarantees that additional resources will be made available to match any recommendations."

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