An investigation into claims firefighters submitted fraudulent overtime claims has revealed the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service was operating without proper guidelines for “non operational” overtime payments.
Auditors from the Department of Health’s internal audit unit were called in last October to investigate “alleged irregular” overtime and expenses claims which had been submitted by firefighters who were overseeing a recruitment programme.
The firefighters, who supervised trainees taking part in the Wholetime Recruitment Exercise had submitted overtime and expense claims totalling £98,500, the majority of which related to a two week period last August.
Auditors were called in to investigate concerns over “irregularities” in 100 claims submitted by 30 firefighters after it was alleged that some staff had claimed overtime and expenses payments for supervising the recruitment course, despite also being paid for being on normal duties.
The investigation revealed by the Detail comes just months after Northern Ireland’s Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, warned the fire service that it must improve efficiency savings, including a significant reduction in overtime payments.
The fire service is expected to face more criticism in June when a high ranking staff member, who has made serious allegations of financial wrongdoing within the organisation, gives evidence at an industrial tribunal hearing.
The fire service is expected to contest the allegations.
Firefighters claimed £90,100 in overtime and a further £8,486 in subsistence and mileage.
However investigators uncovered claims which “appear to be excessive and fall outside the agreed payment arrangements.”
While auditors had only been asked to investigate irregularities in 100 claims, concerns were expressed that the total figure of alleged fraud could potentially be significantly higher as an additional 200 overtime claims had still to be processed at the time of the investigation last October.
The Detail said it understood that as a result of the investigation NIFRS has now overhauled its response plan to irregular overtime claims.
However, a fire service spokeswoman was unable to clarify what fraudulent payments, if any, had been uncovered by the investigation and whether any member of staff has faced or is likely to face disciplinary measures.
“The report on the outcome of this investigation has been shared with our sponsoring Government Department, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and it is currently being considered,” she said.
Fire Brigade Union spokesman Jim Barbour insisted that his members had been under clear instructions from their superiors when claiming overtime pay.
“As far as the union is concerned firefighters were acting under instruction from senior officers.”
Insisting that it was NIFRS management and not firefighters who were to blame for the overspend, he said: “The process wasn’t costed. But the other side of the coin is that we were massively understaffed in terms of Wholetime (fulltime) firefighters.
“The union believed there was a public safety issue and it was imperative that new recruits be brought in very quickly.”