Northern Ireland

NI Fire Service paid unapproved bonuses to three staff

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Image caption The NI Fire and Rescue Service has had three chief fire officers in as many years

A number of unapproved bonus payments were made to senior officers in NI's Fire and Rescue Service without official approval from the Department of Health, the BBC has learned.

The information is expected to be included in an internal audit published on Tuesday.

It is the latest revelation to emerge about the organisation.

The bonuses issue concerns the most senior managers between 2007 - 2011.

The service has been subject to several investigations involving senior managers.

The audit is also expected to reveal how a former assistant chief fire officer accepted and retained a Land Rover from a Northern Ireland car dealer despite being told by his boss to return it.

In 2008, payments were made to the deputy chief fire officer, Louis Jones, and assistant chief fire officers Peter Craig and Tom Wright.

The £15,000 figure was not disclosed as required in the 2008/2009 pay documentation.

The move, that was not authorised by either the Fire Service board or the Department of Health, illustrates what an earlier report described as a lack of governance oversight in the organisation.

In response to the BBC, only one of the officers replied. Louis Jones said he was not aware that the payment was irregular.

He said: "In 2006, the Fire and Rescue Board considered my performance and as a result agreed to pay me a bonus for my work activities. I wasn't aware that the payment was considered inappropriate."

It is not the first time that irregular payments were made.

The 2008/09 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts revealed that £50,840 was paid to three non-uniformed directors on the basis of a job revaluation.

Evaluation

They were Terry McGonnigle, Ann Conley and Doros Michail.

It is understood that one of them, Doros Michail, is challenging the payments issue in the High Court.

The evaluation was carried out by Belfast City Council.

However, among its conclusions the 2008/09 report reveals that the payments were not properly approved.

The process by which the payments were awarded was also described as unlawful.

The report said: "The arrangement by which Belfast City Council was selected to undertake the job evaluation does not follow public procurement best practice as established by HM Treasury and endorsed by the Department of Finance and Personnel."

The process was later put out to tender.

The audit is also expected to reveal how a former assistant chief fire officer, Peter Craig, accepted a vehicle from car dealer Charles Hurst in 2009.

Despite being told by his boss, Colin Lammey, to return it, it was found to have been stored in a lock-up garage in Carryduff.

The Charles Hurst Group is currently the major supplier of tyres to the Fire Service.

In a letter to Peter Craig, Mr Lammey, the then chief fire officer, instructed that the vehicle be immediately removed and given back.

But instead of being driven to the car dealers on Boucher Road it went to Carryduff.

The information will be contained in the health minister's statement which he is expected to deliver to the assembly on Tuesday.

When Peter Craig himself became chief, he overturned the previous decision that it should be returned.

Turbulent

When later questioned, he said that it had all been a "genuine mistake".

In a statement on Monday, Charles Hurst said the vehicle had not been supplied for anyone individual and that the tyre contract was awarded by the government's central procurement agency rather than directly by the Fire Service.

"We can confirm that in 2009 we made a vehicle available to NIFRS with full NIFRS & Charles Hurst vehicle livery - and not any one individual - on the basis that it was to be used, on loan, by the community development team in support of a road traffic collision education programme.

"As a company which tangibly supports the communities in which we operate, we regularly contribute to a wide and varied number of initiatives as part of our corporate and social responsibility commitment.

"Charles Hurst is one of four appointed suppliers to NIFRS and was subject to precisely the same tender process by the procurement team of the central purchasing agency as all potential bidders," the company said.

It has been a turbulent time for the NIFRS.

The investigation centres on managers not the fire fighters.

The BBC has previously revealed how a senior member of the Fire Service was allowed to run a private business selling uniforms at the same time as he was in charge of the organisation's stores and procurement.

The man, had secured contracts with some leading local and national companies. But the Fire Service said it was satisfied there wasn't a conflict of interest.

The BBC also published details of how the service dealt with 126 grievance cases in the past decade - 22 remain outstanding despite being lodged several years ago.

At the same time the service has been involved in 54 industrial tribunals.

It has been a turbulent time for the organisation with three chief fire officers in as many years.

It is hoped the current investigations and the appointment of an interim chief fire executive will bring some stability to the service.

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