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London Fire Commissioner “takes immediate action” in response to stinging culture review

29 November 2022

THE LONDON Fire Brigade (LFB) has published the outcome report of an Independent Culture Review led by Nazir Afzal OBE, which was commissioned last year by the Commissioner with the support of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. Afzal and his team heard the experiences of over 2,000 current and former staff and members of the public, including members of the Grenfell Tower community in North Kensington.

Sadly, the report contains accounts of “shockingly poor” behaviour and “painful” experiences across many years. Despite ongoing work transacted by the Brigade to improve equality, diversity and inclusion, the report “lays bare” failings in the Brigade’s processes, which mean that women, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and members of the LGBT+ community have been more likely to experience poor treatment and fair less well in their career.

Further, the report confirms that the disadvantage and discrimination affecting Brigade staff does not translate into its operations and does not impact on the way in which the Brigade prevents and responds to incidents.

London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe has announced immediate action in response to the testimonies, analysis and recommendations from the review as part of a long-term programme designed to improve the Brigade’s culture.

Roe observed: “This is a very sobering day. There is no place for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the Brigade and, from now, it will be completely clear to all staff what behaviour isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be. I’m deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused. I will be fully accountable for improving our culture and I fully accept all of the 23 recommendations outlined in the review report.”

Immediate changes

The Brigade is making immediate changes to provide increased protection for its staff. Anyone accused of discrimination, harassment and bullying will be suspended following a risk assessment pending immediate investigation and dismissed if the accusation is upheld.

The report highlights a lack of confidence in the Brigade’s current complaints procedure and shows that staff haven’t felt safe in speaking up. Following the outcome of the review, the Brigade is introducing an External Complaints Service while internal processes are improved. Staff will be able to use the service to report poor behaviour rather than having to report it internally.

What’s more, the Commissioner has introduced immediate changes to the Brigade’s approach to leadership. In the report, the Brigade’s leadership is described as “disconnected and divided” in its commitment to change and it’s noted that leadership doesn’t always display the behaviours asked of the staff.

Roe has made it absolutely clear that leaders who do not value transparency, accountability and fairness will not have a place in the Brigade going forward. All leaders will be undertaking inclusivity training, which has already begun. From next month, senior leaders will be visiting every watch and team to talk to staff about the review.

New central hub

The Brigade provides an essential emergency response and staff are frequently exposed to traumatic incidents. The report details that more support is needed for their mental health. As a result, LFB staff will now have access to help and support quickly whenever they need it. A new central hub is being created on the LFB’s Intranet specifically for mental health support. This will provide staff with access to 24/7 support in a crisis, as well as access to the Brigade’s counselling and trauma support.

The Commissioner continued: “This report highlights many issues within the Brigade, and it also highlights examples of completely unacceptable behaviour from some of our staff when dealing with the public. These staff jeopardise not just the trust placed in us, but also the safety of those who might now be dissuaded from requesting our help. We are introducing the use of body-worn cameras for staff to provide the necessary reassurance.”

Roe went on to state: “The big changes we’ve already made, and will continue to make, are needed to ensure we protect the people and communities who have suffered poor treatment. I also want to ensure a safe, modern workplace for the dedicated, public-spirited people at the Brigade who are rightly horrified by what this review has uncovered.”

“Horrified” by what this review process has uncovered, Roe asserted: “We will challenge poor behaviour and do everything required to rebuild trust with our people and the communities we are here to serve. We will root out the individuals, systems and behaviours that discriminate against others and let the rest of us down.”

In conclusion, Roe said: “I hope these immediate changes will demonstrate that we understand the gravity of these issues and have immediately improved protection for our staff and the public. We have a huge amount to do in order to improve the working environment of our staff and rebuild trust with the public. I know that change can take time, but that vital change begins now.”

“Disturbing and difficult information”

Mark Hardingham, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), said: “The NFCC is committed to supporting all aspects of the development of UK Fire and Rescue Services, including culture and professionalism. The Independent Culture Review of the LFB contains disturbing and difficult information. We support the LFB for recognising the need and commissioning this work as a positive step on a long and difficult, but vitally important journey.”

Hardingham continued: “We need to take the time to consider the report in full, but clearly the findings are wholly unacceptable of an inclusive and modern blue light Emergency Service. I’m clear that there is no place for harassment, bullying or discrimination in any Fire and Rescue Service.”

The NFCC’s chair knows that the LFB has already accepted the recommendations in full and will be taking immediate action in response, while also ensuring the long-term consideration of the cultural findings.

“We will be studying the report and its recommendations carefully and considering them in the context of every Fire and Rescue Service in the UK,” asserted Hardingham. “We have a clear Core Code of Ethics and equality, diversity and inclusion are woven throughout the standards, products and guidance we provide for Fire and Rescue Services. We will be redoubling efforts here. This will include looking at each of the report’s recommendations to consider how they will influence the future work of the NFCC itself.”

Response from the FBU

Gareth Cook, the Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) regional organiser for London, has issued a detailed response to the Independent Culture Review.

“The LFB report makes for difficult reading,” suggested Cook. “The reported incidents of racism and misogyny are extremely alarming. There is no place for such behaviour or attitudes within the Fire and Rescue Service or, indeed, within our Trade Union.”

The FBU encompasses organised sections for black and ethnic minority members, for women members and also for LGBT members. These sections were created because of discrimination, harassment and inequality within the industry and the Trade Union. Cook has affirmed that the FBU will ensure its equality sections are fully involved in any fuller response to this LFB report.

“The FBU has policies in place to address issues of discrimination and harassment. After due process, this can include the removal of representation from individuals accused of such acts. It can also include disciplinary processes through the FBU itself. Both have been implemented in such cases in the recent past. We shall review the effectiveness of our rules and policies in the light of issues raised and in response to issues we have identified ourselves.”

Along with other Trade Unions, the FBU is already engaged in major work on the issue of sexual harassment. This includes issues in the workplace and also, if identified, within the organisation itself. “We have been working on this matter with the Trades Union Congress and with the FBU’s Women’s Section for some time now and will bring forward changes to policies and structures as required.”

Confirmed concerns

Cook said: “There are elements of this report which confirm concerns raised by the FBU over many years. There are also elements of the report which will cause considerable concern and alarm. We will need to study those areas carefully and respond more fully.”

The review highlights that morale and engagement in the LFB are low. 40% of those who were interviewed expressed frustration in their job. Staff shortages, poor workforce planning, no leave availability, poor work-life balance and low recognition are cited. The review also finds there’s a need for increased trauma specialism and mental health awareness. For the FBU, the findings of poor morale and a need for better mental health structures are highly linked.

Importantly, the review also acknowledges the pay restraints placed on FBU members through “years” of pay neglect.

The review has found that staff are afraid of the consequences of speaking out as they fear the repercussions. “That is entirely unacceptable and must change,” noted Cook, who continued: “Our rules and policies require every FBU member to treat others with dignity and respect and to challenge offensive behaviour of any kind. The Trade Union is committed to equality. We campaign against all discrimination by gender, race or ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability and religion or belief. We have a long track record of campaigning on such issues.”

Degree of scepticism

According to Cook, the FBU has raised concerns about many of the issues contained within this report on a historical basis and, as a consequence, “remains sceptical” about the changes senior leaders will implement with regards to their own behaviours.

For its part, the London region of the FBU is committed to working to address these serious concerns. “We aim to improve the working conditions of our members and protect them from discrimination and unfair or illegal treatment by representing them in the workplace. We are committed to building strong relationships between firefighters and local communities in all their diversity.

We will continue to review the report as we look to build a full and detailed understanding of it.”

*Read the Independent Culture Review in full online by visiting the London Fire Brigade website