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11 June 2007

The loss of a good man

When the perks are so attractive, it's no wonder our public servants are tempted by retirement

By Brian Coleman

A politician’s life is nothing if not unpredictable; you plan a day and then the phone rings and some “crisis” or media raucousness has to be dealt with.

So it was the other day when as leader of the Conservative Group on the London Fire Authority I received an urgent phone call from our Commissioner for London (until four years ago the holder of the post was known as the Chief Fire Officer but members of the Fire Authority were not going to allow Livingstone’s former transport commissioner Bob Kiley to take precedence) telling me he had accepted the post of Chief Fire Advisor to the government and the minister was going to announce it that afternoon.

Well, Sir Ken Knight is indeed the most professional fire officer of his generation in an occupation desperately lacking any men (and they are all men) who know which knife and fork to use at the Mansion House, but I expressed surprise that he was taking a job of advising a minister (Angela Smith) held in universal contempt in the fire world, not least because the only subject she has taken an interest in is the colour of a suggested new national fire uniform.

Furthermore, the traditional post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Fire Services (and with it the honour of laying the wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday) had been abolished following the forced retirement of the last incumbent, the bumbling Sir Graham Meldrum, much, rumour has it, to the personal displeasure of Her Majesty herself, who does not like elected politicians interfering with posts appointed by Royal Warrant.

Sir Ken, who led London’s response to the 7 July Bombings, is not daft. He is following an increasingly well worn path in the public sector in that he will officially retire from the Fire Brigade, take his six-figure lump sum payoff from the pension scheme, his not insignificant annual pension (all of which he is perfectly entitled to) and a £160,000 salary (plus bonus, apparently).

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The pioneers in this field were Ian Johnstone, chief constable of the British Transport Police, and his deputy, Andy Trotter, who take substantial Met pensions and no doubt well earned salaries.

But for men who obviously do not deserve their salaries we need look no further than the designers of the new Olympic logo.

For £400,000 (that is even more than Sir Ian Blair earns as Met Commissioner), we have something that has been universally derided and even had Ken Livingstone spitting feathers with his office apparently in despair with Seb Coe for allowing another Olympics PR disaster and the opportunity for the likes of me to pop up on endless news outlets and have an “easy hit” (Memo to self: remember to decline the rude and cantankerous Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live and stick to those nice presenters on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire who are just grateful for any notable guest).

Oh well, perhaps we should ask the Olympic logo designers to organise the new Fire Brigade national uniform!

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