Welcome and introductions
Paul fell (PF)
Helen King (HK)
Nicci Marzec (NM)
Louise Sheridan (LS)
CFO Mark Jones (MJ)
ACFO Shaun Hallam (SH)
Nick Alexander (NA)
Vaughan Ashcroft (VA)
Paul Bullen (PB)
Stefan Douglas (SD)
Minutes and decisions of previous meeting
PF welcomed everyone to the meeting.
- Apologies were accepted from PFCC Stephen Mold & ACFO Rob Porter.
- PF explained he had been asked to chair this meeting on behalf of the Commissioner, due to his short notice, unavoidable absence.
Budget monitoring report
The Commissioner requests a mid-year budget monitoring report for Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service for the financial year 2022/2023
- Nick Alexander provided an update
- The basis for the forecasting was outlined at the beginning of the report provided.
- The total revenue budget for 2022/23 after in-year virements is £27,092k
- The Fire delegated budget is £26,855k
- NA outlined what is required and what has been agreed to be drawn down from reserves.
- NA advised that given where we are in the financial year and the high levels of inflation, the overall forecast will fluctuate over the coming months.
- The Current forecast overspend if approved by the PFCC can be mitigated in part by £399k additional funding received from the Section 31 Grants and Business rates above that budgeted.
- HK and PF advised that commitment from the Commissioner to use the additional funding from the Section 31 Grants and Business rates has not yet been given. Whilst he is supportive as he wishes the Chief Fire Officer to start the 2023/24 financial year without any impact on his budget allocation from previous years, his preference would be to use these to smooth the costs of things outside of Fire’s direct control such as inflation, pay awards and the uncertainty of the future settlement rather than set it against overspends that are more within Fire’s gift to control such as overtime.
- NA explained the contributory factors to the current financial pressures.
- The wholetime budget is running at £814k higher than the outturn in 2021/22 – the overspend is in overtime and bank and wholetime pay is forecasting an underspend.
- There is a £35k overspend on the retained budget compared to an underspend in 2021/22
- Firefighter pay award negotiations are still underway. 2% has been budgeted for with an additional 1% held by the Commissioner as a contingency to help mitigate this pressure and associated costs, any increase above this will be an additional pressure the PFCC has already agreed to underwrite from reserves
- There is a potential financial impact if the current pay offer of 5% is not agreed and/or industrial action is taken
- The current cost of living crisis is adding further inflationary pressures on fleet, engineering, stores, estates, and facilities.
- These additional pressures have been partly mitigated by the government’s decision to rescind the 1.25% Social Care Levy (NI) from November.
- Overtime of £8K related to covid sickness can be drawn down from specific reserves and the additional bank holiday in September can be funded from reserves as long as these costs are evidenced.
- There was a lengthy discussion about the current overspend for Response Wholetime which is currently showing a £899k overspend.
- Helen King asked for clarification that there was sufficient assurance and management oversight for who makes the decision to authorise Overtime and Bank cover.
- SH confirmed it was agreed at a local level (station manager).
- The Chief Fire Officer confirmed he is comfortable with the decision-making process and that this should not be at a higher level,as was one of the options put forward by the service in their budget monitoring report as to how overspends could be mitigated.
- There was a discussion about the 18-pump availability model and whether this was a contributory factor to the current projected overspend.
- Paul Fell asked if the staffing budget that was put forward in the initial budget setting process was wrong given that more money is being spent on overtime and bank costs despite the firefighter uplift.
- PF asked if, or what had changed in the operating model in order for the Commissioner to understand why costs had clearly been underestimated adding, that we need to be clear as we move into the budget setting process what operating model the Service want to fund and the cost of that model.
- In the discussion about bank holidays, NA advised that bank holidays were now costing nearer £18K rather than the £12k previously advised and on which the budget had been set. SH advised that the operational cover had been increased to include an additional firefighter cover during a bank holiday.
- The Chief Fire Officer commented that the ECR and assumptions from that will need to be factored in moving forwards.
- There was a discussion about Operation Rookery (The plan to manage and mitigate the implication of any industrial action).
- The Chief Fire Officer advised that there could be significant costs however, these won’t be known until we know if firefighters will strike, and what action they will take.
- There was a discussion about comparative costs from the previous strike however that was about pensions, not pay so there are too many variables at the moment.
- The Chief Fire Officer agreed that as soon as the result of the ballot is known and what action is proposed to be taken NFRS will be able to move quickly to give a cost prediction. (2 weeks from the result the FBU will declare what action they will be taking and there is a further 2-week period to respond)
- Returning to the revenue budget as a whole, there was a discussion about how the Fire Service is trying to manage the projected overspend of £600k
- The Chief Fire Officer responded that Service delivery costs are already tightly planned therefore the only way to reduce the overspend would be via a reduction in service delivery.
- The Chief Fiore Officer stated that NFRS are very lean so any leave or sickness results in overtime which is not factored in to planning. Therefore, to meet operational targets he needs to resort to paying overtime.
- HK asked for further information on the cost of ‘spate conditions’ which the service advised had contributed to the overspend on wholetime and retained staffing costs and potentially increased overtime claims explaining that subject to whether any national funding is required for any Fire Pay Awards or potential strike action, the Home Office might offer additional funding to cover the increased costs associated with spate conditions and the additional bank holiday. However, in addition to the PFCC wishing to understand this pressure, to claim any funds available the service would need to be able to explain both the requirement and the cost of the unprecedented demand.
- HK wishes to include this within the next panel report and also wishes to be advised how much have spent on spate conditions should HO funding be available or whether reserves drawdowns are requested.
- If Home Office funding isn’t available as it may be impacted by any strike action, and the costs can be evidenced, then it would be reasonable to cover the extra cost from Reserves.
- Shaun Hallam confirmed he is currently reviewing pre-arranged overtime and Bank spend.
- This is the gap between what is in establishment and what is deployable but cautioned if he reduces overtime then the Service would have to reduce the number of pumps available as a result.
- There was a discussion about the monthly scorecard which SH felt captured this and forecast information.
- It was agreed that Shaun Hallam will ensure this is shared with HK, NA and PF on a monthly basis.
Action – SH to ensure the monthly scorecard is sent to the @OPFCC emails.
Action – PB to ensure any @northantsfire emails are deleted.
Action – SH & NA to provide an indicative cost of the additional money spent on spate conditions. This is required by 18th November so that the information can be included within the next Police File and Crime Panel report.
- There was a discussion about an overspend in Response Retained.
- SH confirmed this is due to additional NOG training requirements as more training is now required to maintain competency.
- NA advised that the budgets had included provision for such training.
- There is also likely to be some spate condition overtime within this figure which, in line with the previous discussion, needs to be costed out.
- On the overspend in Response Wholetime, NA advised that further work is being undertaken to better understand the reasons for the significant variance.
SH suggested that the pay line includes the 2% pay rise assumed within the forecast that hasn’t been paid yet. If this is approved, then the money budgeted will cover it which would reduce the overspend.
- HK advised that was a consistent methodology to previous years and Policing and asked NA if he had adopted any different costing methodology or approach.
- NA confirmed that he had not and for 2023/24 advised that was already factored into the revenue budget plus the 1% additional contingency held by the Commissioner.
- To understand the variance, HK asked if we are using the Wholetime Response budget in the way it was intended or if it had changed.
- The Chief Fire Officer agreed to commission a piece of work on overtime causation and the impact of expenditure.
- There was a discussion about the additional 12 firefighters who were recruited on the basis that it would be self-financing from bank and overtime costs. Since that time, pump availability increased and whilst it was accepted that this could have had some impact on the costs, it does not appear to account for the full increase seen in the budget versus outturn report.
- Paul Fell asked if that meant the operating model had changed with regard to how this additional 12 staff were being deployed. He made the point that it was not his intention to comment on the appropriate operating model but rather to ensure that what the Chief Fire Officer determined was the optimum model was clear and that this was then properly costed.
- The early observation of the Chief Fire Officer was that they became part of the wholetime availability, rather than used as cover as originally intended.
- SH added that there has also been an impact due to the increase from 16 to 18 pump availability. Overtime and bank covers the gap between what is deployable.
- PF stated that the Commissioner still required an explanation as to why the additional 12 people recruited have not reduced overtime and bank costs as the previous Chief Fire Officer stated that they would.
- Following another lengthy discussion, it was agreed that further work was expected to provide the definitive answers to the challenges the Commissioner had raised.
- It was agreed that if the variation on costs were fully understood and articulated the OPFCC would not have to get involved in the level of detail on what were operational matters as this should be understood at Chief Officer level.
- PF reiterated that the OPFCC was not challenging the way the Service is run or what it costs but the Commissioner needs to understand how it is operating and what the real costs are including what is sensible, what is optimal and what it can afford.
- This is essential as what is being spent will be taken into consideration in future precept and budgetary decisions.
Action – The Chief Fire Officer to review the causation of overtime and bank expenditure in line with the 2019 Business case for to increase the firefighter establishment to provide assurance to the Commissioner that it was being appropriately managed and that the requirements of future budget setting is fully costed and understood.
Action – The Chief Fire Officer to ensure for the budget setting process for 2023/24 there is clarity over his operating model so that this can be properly costed
- NA continued, a further 12 wholetime firefighters are budgeted for May 2023 and he will continue to work with the Chief Fire Officer to understand the variances in the current year and to inform the budget setting process for 2023/24.
- HK requested OPFCC have a copy of the new workforce plan so that she can discuss this with the Commissioner and seek his approval.
Action – SH to send the workforce plan to HK
- There was a discussion about an overspend of £127k in Engineering Services and Stores.
- This is mainly due to high inflation costs on fuel, parts and materials.
- The Head of Joint Fleet is seeking to reduce costs in other areas where possible to help mitigate.
- There was a discussion about officer cars and what might be the right model for delivery of these.
- It was agreed that the Chief Fire Officer would discuss the need for a disposal plan with the Head of Joint Fleet and NA to propose to the Commissioner.
Action – The Chief Fire Officer to build in revised fleet plans to the Capital budget in January for 2023/24 onwards.
- There was a discussion about capital plan delivery. It was agreed that the revised capital plan to be submitted as a part of the budget setting process for 2023/24 and beyond needed to be pragmatic. Previously ambitious plans have been set but issues such as capacity and supply chain issues have meant they have not been fully realised. They need to be realistic and deliverable otherwise it has a knock-on effect on revenue budget where funding can be unnecessarily committed.
- The Chief Fire Officer agreed to review the capital programme and the end-of-life plan for disposal of assets.
- NA concluded by adding that there has been far more progress in the current capital plan than ever before. This was agreed and that there was more scrutiny and effective oversight of the plans.
- A planned stock conditions survey and standards survey will identify any gaps which will give a better idea of what is needed and how long it will take.
- In closing NA confirmed that he is expecting the financial pressures and challenges to continue.
The Commissioner welcomed the fact and was assured that there was more understanding of some of the financial pressures faced by the service and the causes of these.
He made the point it was critical that operating models were properly and effectively costed and monitored and that if any changes were made to these, the financial impacts and affordability of these changes were considered ahead of any implementation taking place. He requested that the Chief Fire Officer determined his preferred operating model for effective costing as a part of the budget setting process for 2023/2024.
Internal audit paper
In May 2022 the Commissioner received a paper at the accountability board providing an update on the internal audit processes for NFRS during 2021/2022.
In 2 areas there was limited assurances provided, these relating to the audits on:
As discussed at the May meeting the Commissioner requires a further update paper relating to these two areas.
The paper will describe the findings of the audits with an update on all recommendations, outlining whether they have been completed, and progress since May 2022 and if not completed the reasons for this and anticipated completion dates.
- Assistant Chief Officer Paul Bullen provided an overview.
- Data quality continues to be a challenge.
- A BI Pilot project was approved but progress has been slow for several reasons however, there is confidence that the March 2023 deadline can be met for a direction of travel. PF queried what this meant. PB explained that by end of March the data warehouse will have been completed with the pilot concluded of all three products that NFRS wanted to test, and a recommendation as to the way forward with a particular product.
- Have built a data warehouse and will be in a position to recommend a way forward in one of the products in the pilot. (PowerBI, QLIK or Tableau).
- The ICT plan was inherited from the County Council which did not have a plan for what should happen in the event of a total system failure.
- The recovery process, should there be a whole system failure, is the Chief Fire Officers decision as to what gets turned on first and the time scales for doing so.
- PB anticipates that this will be agreed in the next week.
- On Business analytics, PB is reassured that it is where it needs to be and have a plan for next few days.
- PF commented that the Internal audit had identified some important risks and it was reassuring to note that many had already been resolved and work was progressing on the remaining risks detailed in the report.
Action – There were a small number of activities where measures had been undertaken to mitigate the risks identified in the recommendations of these 2 audit reports where an assessment was still needed to confirm this was the case. PB to confirm that these had now taken place and recommendations completed.
The Commissioner welcomed the work that had been done since the initial audit was undertaken.
He was assured that the majority of the issues and concerns identified at that time has been mitigated. He still required final assurances in relation to a small number of actions that had been taken where NFRS believed that control measures that had been put in place had mitigated the risks but was still awaiting assessment as to whether this was the case.
Code of ethics update
In February 2022, the Commissioner received an accountability board update on NFRS implementation of the national Fire Service code of ethics, adopted in May 2021.
Within that meeting it was agreed that he would receive a further paper later in 2022, to outline examples of how the implementation of the code of ethics and other EDI workstreams could evidence the difference that they were making to cultural change within NFRS.
The Commissioner therefore requires a paper outlining at a high level the work that has taken place since February 2022 to further embed the code of ethics and other EDI workstreams, mentioned in the earlier paper into day to day culture and activity of the service and how this can be evidenced to making a difference to positive culture change.
- GM Stef Douglas provided an update on where NFRS are and the evidence that shows it is making a difference to cultural change.
- The Fire Standards Board published its new Code of Ethics Fire Standard for England in May 2021.
- Since the last update in February work has continued to embed the code.
- GM Douglas provide a number of examples where this had taken place. This included it being a mandatory requirement in PDRs. PF asked if this was monitored for compliance and it was confirmed that this is the case in business services.
- It is highly visible on all station noticeboards.
- A prompt card has been redesigned and used by incident commanders at all emergencies.
- It also forms part of the induction and promotion process with candidates required to provide examples of living the code of ethics. Examples of how this worked were discussed.
- PF confirmed the Commissioner was assured that good processes had been adopted and asked for a copy of the prompt card.
Action – SD to send a copy of the Code of Ethics Prompt card to PF.
- Other related work strands include Aspiring Future Leaders Experience Days and proactively engaging with seldom heard and hard to reach communities such as visits to Mosques and Pride events.
- There was a discussion about whether the other related work was more about recruitment and a desire to have a more reflective workforce of the community we represent or if it was about home fire safety advice.
- SD confirmed that it was both; adding that part of the approach to supporting vulnerable people is being out and about, able to spot risk and then trusted to provide the help required.
- There was a discussion about the neurodiversity processes that have been put in place to support colleagues.
- SD advised that the Fire Service has a disproportionate amount of colleagues with dyslexia but does not have a budget to provide reasonable adjustments in the same way that the Force has.
- HK advised that this should have been fed into the next round of budget discussions with NA that the service are undertaking to ensure the chief fire officer can ensure it is captured within his budget requirements. SD advised he was raising it at today’s meeting to do so.
- EDI training on LGBT awareness has been completed for Station Managers and FEG.
- EDI Champions will deliver further training across the Service supported by e-learning.
- Development days are being run to encourage movement through the organisation.
- Have a go days, Positive action days and online workshops have been arranged to ensure the Service attracts a wide range of recruits.
- Support is also being offered around fitness awareness and training including understanding the bleep test so that candidates can work on fitness levels.
- PF asked for assurance that minimum entry requirements in relation to Job related tests and fitness tests have not been lowered.
- SD confirmed that this was not the case. this is about creating the widest possible pool of applicants and the processes in place to help them.
- SD provided other examples using social media of how the adoption of the code is making a difference (Holi festival and Aspiring Leaders Day – all female group) along with other examples such as identifying role models for neurodiversity, capturing protected characteristics and positive action work.
- SD confirmed there was good engagement in the recent EDI survey with 175 responses.
- In addition, there are now more female station based junior officers than ever before and a Women’s network.
- PF advised that the Commissioner recognised that work was underway and that it would take time to evidence positive change.
- The Commissioner would be looking for this in future staff surveys where Fire Staff could voice whether or not they felt things were different.
- The Chief Fire Officer also confirmed that positive change in the culture of the Service would be reflected in Service delivery.
- SH thanked SD for the really good work that has been delivered.
The Commissioner acknowledges the good work that has already taken place in embedding the Fire Service Code of Ethics and other EDI activity into the service locally.
However, the litmus test for this was not just whether the service had effective policy and procedure, but staff on the frontline actually felt that this was making a positive impact and difference. This would need to be tested in future staff surveys and similar measures.
- No further business was raised.