Plans to stop comebacks by fire brigade ‘boomerang bosses’

Former West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Chief Fire Officer, Simon Pilling
Former West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Chief Fire Officer, Simon Pilling

The Government has announced plans to stop ‘boomerang bosses’ retiring from senior positions in local fire brigades only to be re-employed on similar lucrative terms.

It comes after a series of controversies including that of ex-West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service chief fire officer Simon Pilling, who retired for a month and was able to access a lump sum pension payment before being re-hired for his own job.

It’s completely unacceptable for fire services to act in this way.

Brandon Lewis

Fire Service minister Brandon Lewis says the practice, where senior officers retire from their job and draw on pension benefits before being re-employed almost immediately in the same or a similar post on potentially more lucrative terms, is “unacceptable” .

He is now planning to redraw national guidelines to ban the re-appointment of retired senior officers in such circumstances, unless an exceptional public safety need can be proven.

But a legal officer at West Yorkshire’s service has said Mr Pilling’s re-appointment would still be allowed if the rules changed, and described the Government’s approach to senior officers’ pensions as ‘inconsistent’ with its other employment policies.

The Home Office says that under current rules, a long-serving chief fire officer on a typical salary of around £140,000 can potentially access a lump sum from their pension pot of over £400,000, then avoid employee pension contributions of more than £20,000 a year after being re-employed in the same role.

The new rules will also bar an officer who returns to work in such an exceptional circumstance from drawing their pension alongside their salary.

Mr Lewis said: “It’s completely unacceptable for fire services to act in this way. It erodes public confidence, undermines the respect of firefighters and staff in their leadership, and creates the perception that there is one rule for file and rank firefighters and another for those at the top.

“This Government is reforming the fire service to make it more accountable, efficient and effective in performing its vital duties on behalf of the public.”

Mr Pilling officially retired as West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue’s chief fire officer at the end of December 2015 before returning on February 1, 2016. He was replaced by John Roberts of South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue this month.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance strongly criticised the arrangements while the local Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the lucrative opportunity would not be available to ordinary firefighters whose jobs have been lost because of severe public spending cuts.

But West Yorkshire Fire Authority, which oversees the service and employs chief officers, said at the time that uncertainty surrounding devolution plans for a combined regional authority meant it would be unfair to appoint a new chief.

The authority began a recruitment process in 2015 after Mr Pilling said he planned to retire but chairman Judith Hughes, a Kirklees councillor, said it was halted because devolution may make the role partially redundant.

Instead, Mr Pilling was invited to return on a 12-month contract. Under re-employment rules he had to leave for at least a month before stepping back into the top job.

Having retired, he was entitled to receive a tax-free lump sum, though he was not entitled to receive an annual pension payment until he was no longer employed by the service.

According to the service’s accounts, Mr Pilling received £164,000 in salary, bonuses, expenses and benefits in 2014/15, as well as £33,109 in employer pension contributions.

The following year, which includes the month in which he was not employed by the service, he was paid £151,000 in salary and other perks, as well as £24,848 in employer pension contributions.

Michael Barnes, chief legal and governance officer for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, said the Home Office was not proposing to end the practice of re-appoining retired officers, but only to ensure certain procedures are complied with first.

He added that he believed the ‘re-engagement’ of Mr Pilling would have complied with the Government’s proposed new rules.

He said: “It was temporary, it was in the interests of efficiency and economy and public safety and it actually led to a small saving in costs to the taxpayer. It was approved by a committee of elected members who assessed the matter in detail.

“It was also made in exceptional circumstances due to the uncertainty at the time caused by possible local government reorganisation including police reform proposals.”

Mr Barnes said it was not the case that lower-ranking officers could not retire and be re-appointed.

And he added: “The Home Office make no mention of the fact that the vast majority of employees of both public and private sector bodies can with employer consent at age 55 plus elect to work on a flexible retirement basis which can actually provide better overall benefits for the employee than can re-engagement.

“Whilst it is long standing Government fiscal and tax policy to support such flexibility for millions of workers that option is not open to senior fire officers under their pension scheme. Government policy therefore appears to be somewhat inconsistent.”

A consultation on the proposals, which was launched today, is open to Chiefs and Chairs of all Fire and Rescue Authorities in England, the Local Government Association; Fire Officer’s Association, Association of Principal Fire Officers; the Fire Brigades Union and the Retained Firefighters Union, as well as others with an interest.