Lord Greenhalgh is a former Minister of State in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office. He has previously served as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime in London and as Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
The London Fire Brigade published the Independent Culture Review last week. The review led by Nazir Afzal is thorough and damning. It reveals shocking examples of racism, bullying and misogyny in one of the world’s largest firefighting and rescue organisations where 20th century banter can lead to vile abuse and bullying. Afzal has a strong belief that this toxic culture extends beyond the capital. As a recent former Fire Minister at the Home Office, I was rocked by the scale and extent of the abuse in the LFB but not surprised. Following an inspection by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services earlier this year, the LFB was issued with a cause for concern finding “evidence of behaviours that are not in line with brigade values, including discrimination and bullying. Brigade values and behaviours are not always demonstrated by senior leaders.” The inspectorate recommended an action plan to be implemented by 31st August 2022, well before the findings of this independent review were released.
Culture is important in any organisation as it is the culture that drives results. All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results that they get. It should not be an insurmountable problem to redesign the organisation to solve this. So why am I in such a thunderous mood? Because so far there has been such a woeful diagnosis of the root causes of this racism and misogyny and an abject failure to set out a comprehensive solution. Concluding that the problem is institutional racism hardly helps. Finding two words to describe the problem is not the solution frankly. Avoiding calling out the Fire Brigades Union, often described to me as a bullying organisation, particularly its current National Executive, is a glaring omission.
Nor is the problem solved by focusing on the inadequacy of the LFB HR Department with its woke “Togetherness Strategy” or rolling out “Valuing Everyone” training. The problem is within the design of the organisation. The elements of the design of any organisation are its people, structure, information and decision making processes – as well as the tasks that the organisation undertakes. The LFB Commissioner, Andy Roe, is right to take swift action and accept all of the 23 recommendations in the Review. But this will not be enough. More needs to be done to build professionalism, boost performance and strengthen governance
In response to an Urgent Question the week, the Fire Minister, Chris Philp, defended the Government’s record by pointing to the White Paper on the reform of our fire and rescue service published in May. But publication itself is not enough. The White Paper that I worked on for over two years with the full blooded backing of the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel and support of Fire Chiefs, the Local Government Association, PCCs and council leaders sets out a plan and a blueprint for root and branch reform covering three principal areas: People. Professionalism and Governance.
For the people strand, the proposals seek to clarify the role of fire and rescue services and the role of the firefighter, unlock talent and improve diversity within services and further develop schemes that identify and nurture talent. Finally, the White Paper calls for an overhaul of the antiquated pay negotiation process that is unfit for a modern emergency service. On building greater professionalism, the paper proposes to move from a Fire Standards Board run by the Home Office to a College of Fire and Rescue with a mandatory 21st century leadership programme for progression to senior roles, set clearer entry requirements for recruitment and put in place a statutory code of ethics and a fire and rescue service oath.
On strengthening governance, the White Paper would transfer fire functions from the committee structure that exists in 38 of the 44 fire and rescue authorities to a single, elected – ideally directly elected – individual who would hold an operationally independent Chief Fire Officer to account.
The Government already has an oven-ready blueprint for the reform of our fire and rescue service. Now is the time to implement it in full and without delay.