A ROW has broken out over £3,000 of taxpayers money being used to fund a private operation for the fire chief.
The Fire Authority claim it was money well spent because without it Chief Fire Office Mark Yates could have been off work for 12 weeks.
But one councillor who tried to stop it happening, the Taxpayers Alliance and the Fire Brigades Union have all hit out, saying it’s not acceptable at a time when the fire service is facing financial cuts.
The operation took place last October but had not been made public until now, after the Worcester News lodged a Freedom of Information request.
We can reveal that a group of four councillors approved the ‘discretionary’ payment in a private meeting in November.
There is even a dispute about who was actually at the meeting, with one councillor denying he was there, even though he was named by two who were present.
Mr Yates had has a back problem for some time – not related to his current fire duties – and had been told he needed an operation which had a 12-week NHS waiting time.
Instead Mr Yates, whose salary is £122,000, paid £5,090 to have a private operation more quickly. He then asked the Fire Authority to cover the cost.
The four councillors eventually agreed to cover £3,000 after heated disagreements.
Mr Yates has also had £240 of physiotherapy paid for by the Authority.
The panel of four councillors who took the decision included authority chairman Derek Prodger and Labour group leader Richard Udall.
The vote was 3-1 in favour of paying the money, with Councillor Udall the dissenting voice.
Councillor Prodger has defended the decision: "Before the operation he did get into work but he was struggling at his desk, he was very brave.
"If he went into an NHS hospital it would have taken much longer, we wanted the chief back quickly and it was money well spent in my view.”
"He had no real length of time off (before the surgery) but we looked at the figures and felt it was more expedient to get it done quickly."
However Councillor Udall said: “I believe it's wrong for the public sector to subsidise private sector health care - especially as the person involved already has a very good salary. I made my position very clear."
The situation has been branded "ludicrous" by the Taxpayers Alliance, which has called upon Mr Yates to pay it all back.
Spokesman John O'Connell said: "Residents will be angry that they've had to cough up to pay for private treatment when very few of them are able to afford it for themselves.
"It says something when the public sector top brass don't use the NHS for their treatment, especially as everyone else is expected to be happy with it.
These perks must be scrapped, as taxpayers already foot hefty salaries and pensions."
Steve Gould, secretary of the county's Fire Brigades Union, said: "This is very disappointing. We are facing losing jobs and engines.
"If the fire authority can get rail-roaded into something like this, what chance of saving appliances?
"Yet again the fire service is being dragged to the forefront and it's nothing to do with firefighters, it's senior management."
Mr Yates was unavailable for comment.
The fire service is currently facing significant cuts to services, with stations at risk of closure and engines due to be removed to help save £4 million by 2016.
There is a dispute about which four councillors were at the panel meeting. Councillors Prodger and Udall have both named two others who they say were present, but one of them denies being there.
The fourth could not be contacted.
WHAT THE FIRE SERVICE SAY
IN responding to the Freedom of Information Request, the fire service said each claim for medical help is looked at on a "case-by-case" basis.
It also said Mr Yates could potentially have been off work for up to 12 weeks while waiting for the NHS surgery, which would have cost more in giving other staff extra cash to take on more duties.
The statement read: "He was likely to be off work for up to 12 weeks whilst waiting for an NHS operation.
"Where NHS waiting lists are lengthy, the service has previously paid for staff members to be referred privately for consultant appointments. "In addition, we also fund other services for counselling and physiotherapy through occupational health.
"Each instance is reviewed on a case-by-case basis and all options are considered where it is deemed to be cost effective in progressing a diagnosis or treatment to enable an earlier return to work, and shown to be in the best interests of the service.
"Elected members considered it was in the fire authority's best interests that he was able to return to work as soon as possible and therefore agreed to contribute £3,000 towards the total £5,090 cost of having the operation privately.
"This contribution was less than the estimated £8,500 cost of additional payments to other officers if he had been absent for a prolonged period."