Theresa May’s government has been caught twisting the law to sue a cash-strapped fire service for £10m

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Theresa May’s government is threatening a local fire service with court action, unless it pays back over £10m it allegedly “owes” within weeks. And it’s a slap in the face from the Tories, because the fire brigade in question has already seen budget cuts of £22m. But it appears the only reason the fire service has this bill is because the Tories are manipulating the law.

May’s miserly demands

The Home Office claims that Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) owes it over £10m. The bill is from 2006/07 to 2011/12, when the government allegedly overpaid TWFRS money towards its firefighters’ pension scheme. Currently, local fire services can get help from central government with the costs of their pensions. This comes in the form of a ‘top up’ payment, under a scheme [pdf] set up in 2005 by the then-Labour government.

But the Home Office claims it overpaid TWFRS. And according to reports in The ChronicleLive, it has written to TWFRS telling it that it has until 25 August to arrange a repayment plan or face court action to recover the £10m in full.

TWFRS has been aware of the bill for several months, saying it was due to an “accounting error” government auditors “did not pick up on”. And so, it has been in talks with the Home Office. But The Canary has looked into the case. And it would appear that the Tories are twisting the law surrounding the pensions top up.

Twisting the law?

Originally, Labour’s 2005 pensions top up scheme put the “liability” for the top up with [pdf p23] the government. But this was amended [pdf p58] in the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Order 2006 to make fire services liable for any overpayments. And the latest law, the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014, clearly states [paragraph 129, section three] that the government must tell the fire service if it owes money in the next (“second”) financial year after the year it owes it. Then, the government must give the fire service written notice the next (“third”) year, on or before 3 July. And the fire service must repay this by the end of July.

So theoretically, the government should only invoice TWFRS now for any overpayments from the financial year 2015/16. Because there is no legal provision for historical overpayments.

The Home Office said:

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We have made clear to TWFRS that, while they are required to repay the money in full, we will consider staged repayment terms.

Cutting the fire service to the bone

But the government’s demands come after TWFRS has been forced to make ‘efficiency savings’ of more than £22m since 2010. And the service has also seen the loss of 343 firefighters and six front-line appliances in that time. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned that the £10m Tory bill could impact on public safety.

Andy Noble, FBU executive council member for the North East, said:

Grenfell Tower is an unfortunate timely reminder of what can happen when the Government puts austerity politics before public safety. If TWFRS is forced to pay back the historical over payment, it will lead to the decimation of the service we provide, without doubt impacting not only on firefighter safety, but that of the general public also. In the interest of public safety we would urge the Minister to reconsider his decision.

Ironically, the Labour government’s original proposals were designed [pdf p6] to ensure the “taxpayer [wouldn’t be] disadvantaged” by the scheme. But by manipulating the law to recover £10m, the Tories are doing exactly that. Because not only have they axed more than 10,000 fire fighters since 2010, now they are willing to see the public suffer once again, all for the sake of £10m.

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