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“Government must urgently reform Fire and Rescue Service” asserts HMICFRS

23 January 2023

THE GOVERNMENT needs to reform the fire sector as a “matter of urgency” or otherwise risk firefighters not being able to provide the best possible service for the public. That’s the assertion of a new report issued by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

In his first annual assessment of England’s Fire and Rescue Services since being appointed as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector last year, Andy Cooke has found that only two of the Inspectorate’s previous six recommendations for reform of the Fire and Rescue Service have been implemented. A finding described by Cooke to be “extremely disappointing”.

Further, Cooke asserts that the Home Office, the Local Government Association, the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and the Trade Unions should work together to consider reforming structures for negotiating pay and general Terms and Conditions, a process which would reduce the risk of industrial action.

What’s more, it’s Cooke’s firmly held belief that many Fire and Rescue Services need to improve their culture. There are still some “unacceptable” levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Difficult year ahead

Cooke observed: “I am continually struck by the dedication of firefighters and other staff. I know the public feel the same way. They are enormous assets to our communities. The Fire and Rescue Service faces a difficult year ahead against the backdrop of industrial action. Some may see these challenges as a reason not to risk further change. On the contrary, reform of the Fire and Rescue Service is still urgently needed and, until all of our recommendations are addressed in full, Fire and Rescue Services will not be able to provide the best possible service to the public.”

He continued: “I’m frustrated at the lack of progress since we first started inspecting Fire and Rescue Services back in 2018. Only two of our six recommendations for national reform have been completed. I fully expect to see further commitments from the Government – including timescales for completion – very soon. Members of the public and the Fire and Rescue Services themselves deserve better.”

The Inspectorate’s four remaining recommendations, as outlined in the report entitled ‘The State of Fire and Rescue: The Annual Assessment of Fire and Rescue Services in England (2022)’, are that:

*the Home Office should precisely determine the role of Fire and Rescue Services in order to remove any ambiguity

*the sector should remove unjustifiable variation, including in terms of how it defines risk

*the sector should review how effectively pay and conditions are determined

*the Home Office should invest chief fire officers with operational independence, whether through primary legislation or in some other manner

The Inspectorate has confirmed that it will be producing a new report on values and culture in England’s Fire and Rescue Services, which will be published later on this year.

NFCC issues response

NFCC chair Mark Hardingham commented: “There is a lot to be proud of in this year’s Annual Assessment. To see the dedication of professional staff highlighted is no surprise, with 84% of the public valuing the work carried out by Fire and Rescue Services. I’m also pleased to see the role of the NFCC and its national work highlighted. Our programmes provide all Fire and Rescue Services with the tools to build on the excellent work taking place, while making improvements in areas we know need to be better.”

The NFCC’s work on developing national fire and rescue policy – including in the areas of leadership and the Core Code of Ethics – is highlighted by HMICFRS, as is the partnership between the NFCC and the National Employers and the Local Government Association on the ‘Fit for the Future’ initiative, which sets out the future role of the Fire and Rescue Service, the continued development and publication of national Fire Standards and improvements in terms of the regulatory fire safety role of Fire and Rescue Services. 

After what was one of the hottest and longest summers on record, firefighters and Fire and Rescue Services have also praised for dealing with the significant increase in the number and scale of wildfires that occurred.  

Nevertheless, Andy Cooke has continued the HMICFRS’ call for urgent reform of the Fire and Rescue Service and for the Government to act on recommendations set out in this and previous reports.

Prevention work is an area that has been highlighted as requiring improvement in order to continue to drive down deaths and injuries from fires and other incidents, targeted especially at the most vulnerable people in communities.

Concerns about culture and inclusion within some Fire and Rescue Services stands out as an area which requires improvement, referencing unacceptable levels of bullying, harassment and discrimination. HMICFRS will be producing a ‘spotlight’ report on values and culture later on this year, drawing from inspections already undertaken across every fire service in England.

Much to be done

Hardingham continued: “We know there is a lot to do in areas such as culture, diversity and around wider reform. As set out in the HMICFRS report, this is more than just having a representative workforce. Rather, it’s about creating the right inclusive environment to ensure all members of staff feel valued, safe and able to realise their full potential at work. While there is much that every Fire and Rescue Service can do – and some already are – in order to maximise the potential benefits for staff and the public, it needs all those working across the fire sector to continue to work together on addressing those areas where there are clear issues in play.”  

Further, Hardingham noted: “The NFCC has a wide range of well-developed national work underway with a focus on people and culture. We believe this will make a difference and deliver improvements across all Fire and Rescue Services. However, the journey towards culture change is rarely a ‘quick fix’ and requires sustained investment. I welcome the Inspectorate’s forthcoming ‘spotlight’ report focusing on values and culture.”

In conclusion, Hardingham stated: “I look forward to working with Government on the next stage of Fire and Rescue Service reform and the publication in the coming months of the response to the White Paper consultation from 2022. Reform will need continued investment in Fire and Rescue Services and their national bodies. We welcome the opportunity to continue the engagement that has been established to this point. This must provide further opportunities to improve and build on the confidence that members of the public clearly have in their Fire and Rescue Services.”

FBU expresses disappointment

Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: “The FBU is disappointed with HMICFRS report, which continues its ill-judged commitment to the White Paper.”

Wrack added: “The FBU hoped that, under new leadership, the Inspectorate would abandon the misguided White Paper that seeks to give chief fire officers a free hand to instruct the workforce, ignoring their contracts of employment and conditions of service. These ‘reforms’ are aimed at undermining the FBU, despite the clear majority of firefighters choosing to belong to the Trade Union.”

According to Wrack, the HMICFRS has chosen not to listen to rank and file firefighters. “The FBU would again urge Andy Cooke to map his own course to achieve what we all want. In short, a properly funded Fire and Rescue Service that includes decent resources and fair pay for firefighters and that reflects the extraordinary job performed by those same firefighters.”

Further, Wrack argued: “The Inspectorate claims to sympathise with firefighters during this cost-of-living crisis, yet unfortunately provides nothing more than warm words. Firefighters want their contribution to society recognised with a fair pay rise rather than being subjected to a continued political attack that seeks to abolish their collective bargaining structures.”

In conclusion, Wrack noted: “Andy Cooke does recognise that Fire and Rescue Services are falling short of response standards they themselves have set and describes a ‘postcode lottery’ about which the FBU has issued warnings for years now. Despite the correct diagnosis, he doesn’t prescribe the correct course of treatment, which is national standards. Neither does the HMICFRS report address more than a decade of central funding cuts, 11,500 firefighter posts being lost and years of pay cuts.”