Fire chief criticised for retiring - only to come back a month later

Chief Fire Officer Graham Stagg.

Chief Fire Officer Graham Stagg. - Credit: Archant

The chief fire officer of Cambridgeshire has been criticised for retiring from his £200,000 a year pay and perks package, only to return to work a month later.

Graham Stagg left the authority last month, collected his lump sum retirement pot due after 30 years service but deferred his pension as he returned to duty on Tuesday.

Former county councillor and ex fire authority member Geoff Heathcock said: “What really gets my goat is that this was not brought up in any committee or reported in any way.

“You can’t make a decision of this multitude with tax payers’ money and not be reported.

“The principle is wrong. I have written to fire minister Brandon Lewis as I think this is a national scandal not just a Cambridgeshire issue.

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“He is a hypocrite.”

Chatteris county councillor Sandra Rylance and fire authority member since May said she found the issue over Mr Stagg “disgraceful”.

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But Fred Brown, chairman of the Cambridgeshire Fire Authority from June of last year until losing his seat in this year’s election, defended the arrangement.

Mr Brown said: “We looked at the whole picture and at what was available at that level of officer and down to the demographics going on around the country at the moment. There wasn’t a wide field from which to choose.

“By re-engaging him we save money and retain the senior officer post that gives us a saving of £56,000 a year.”

The post is on a three-year term with a break clause either way.

“It gives continuity for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue,” said Mr Brown.

“We’ve probably got the leanest and meanest less cost per capita fire service and one of the best fire management teams in the whole of the country. This way it’s keeping the team going.”

Chris Strickland, deputy chief fire officer, also defended the decision to allow his boss to have a month’s retirement before returning.

“The fire authority agreed 18 months ago to allow the chief fire officer to continue working after his retirement”

He said Mr Stagg left the service for one month – unpaid- and returned on October 1.

“This is a common practice that happens regularly within the public sector,” he said.

Mrs Rylance said: “This revelation has come as a bit of a surprise. Mr Stagg has only come back from retirement which lasted a month but as I also understand it he travels in, every day, from London like he has always done.

“We provide him with a car too- I think he’s taking us for a ride. The fire authority is trying to save so much money and I would have thought we could have put someone else in post. Maybe his successor would not have been as good but we could have used this opportunity to save money.”

She said she could understand the unions being angry over the revelations “because they are fighting for their pensions. I understand Mr Stagg is not drawing his pension but he could have taken his lump sum.

“I am sure I am not alone in wanting some questions answered.”

Mrs Rylance said the public perception of the agreement was important “since when you are being cut left, right and centre when this sort of thing happens it casts doubt on the fire authority.

“I don’t know anyone who knew about this before news of it broke- I wasn’t on the fire authority last year when it was apparently agreed but the question is who was and why?”

Mr Heathcock was among a group of firefighters who lobbied Downing Street for a better deal for the county’s fire crew earlier this year.

Yet months later, said Mr Heathcock, and aware of the financial difficulties of the county’s fire service, Mr Stagg had “looked after number one” with a hefty pension deal and then returned to an equally high salary package.

Mr Strickland said that during his boss’s absence “other members of the senior management team were temporarily promoted to ensure operational resilience was maintained at all times.”

He argued there were benefits to the authority as they could keep “the stability of its senior management team during what is a very difficult time for the service. It will also mean that the fire authority will no longer have to pay pension contributions for the chief fire officer, thereby saving money.

“The chief fire officer will return on his existing salary and will not receive additional monthly pension payments.”

Last week firefighters in England and Wales staged a four-hour strike in a dispute over pensions and government plans to make members work up to the age of 60.

As of June, the fire service had achieved £4.2m in budget savings and cut 65 jobs as part of its cost-cutting measures.

Keith Handscomb of the fire brigade union described the situation with Mr Stagg as “grossly unfair” at a time when firefighters stand to lose salary and pension.

“The timing could not be more insensitive and it creates the impression of a cosy relationship at the top with not only jobs for the boys, but a pension too,” he said.

“It seems grossly unfair if senior officers today can claim both pension and salary when so many firefighters serving on the frontline stand to lose both.”

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