Fire minister quizzed on fire service culture

During a Home Affairs Committee session held on 20 March 2024, Minister of State for Crime, Policing, and Fire, MP Chris Philp responded to questions about culture in the fire and rescue services (FRSs).

This was the second session held about FRS culture and sought to examine how senior leaders had been responding to “incidents of wrongdoing” and the efforts being made to transform workplace culture. It follows ongoing independent inquiries since 2022, into England’s FRSs, where instances and claims of bullying, harassment, and discrimination were revealed. Chair of the committee, Dame Diana Johnson said: “We are very concerned about a culture that does not seem to be one that you would expect to see in any public service in 2024”.

The Chair also raised concerns that FRSs were too slow to make the changes that were needed, citing the HM Inspector of Constabulary and HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, Andy Cooke, who had previously told the committee that even in their third round of inspections, they were still finding “too many instances of unacceptable behaviours”.

The Minister agreed that were “cultural problems that need[ed] to be addressed”. He said the test of whether the culture had changed was evidence of those changes “cascading down through the whole organisation”, which was a challenge for the senior leadership to deliver.

I think there has been progress. The London Fire Brigade is a good example of that, where the Commissioner, Andy Roe, has made enormous progress following the Nazir Afzal report. He's really gripped it and brought about positive change. There's been good work done in Manchester as well, which received a good rating just recently, so there has definitely been progress. But I would agree… that there is more to do,” the Minister said.

The Chair also asked whether the governance structure for FRSs was “fit for purpose”. In response, the Minister said: “We, collectively – the public as well as Parliament – rely on the fire and rescue authority as the oversight body to be inquisitive and appropriately sceptical, and I think we need them to discharge that function seriously and not to treat it just as a minor matter alongside their county council duties.”

Continuing, the Minister said that moving towards a police, fire, and crime commissioner model may be a better solution “because you have a single, individual elected person – not a committee, but one person who is obviously accountable and has a stronger incentive, therefore, to make sure it gets sorted out”.

The session then considered the importance of people having confidence in the reporting system and that concerns were taken seriously and investigated independently. He added that “independent mechanisms” were now in place at all 44 FRSs, which had not previously been the case.

The Minister was also asked about those in the FRS being held to account for instances of misconduct, with the Minister suggesting that a barring concept or model could be a possible solution to this. “[The] lack of accountability is concerning,” he added.

Finally, he said: “We mostly talked about the cultural issues that need to be sorted out, and they are very serious. But we should also put on record, our thanks to over 30,000 firefighters up and down the country who put themselves in personal danger every day to keep the rest of us safe. We should note that the majority of firefighters are public service orientated, doing the right thing, and putting themselves at risk, and we shouldn't just lose sight of that as we rightly consider all of these other issues as well.”

Closing the session, Dame Diana Johnson added: “The committee would also like to pay tribute to all those brave five firefighters who have come forward to explain where things have gone wrong in the fire service, where they haven't been treated properly and appropriately and have spoken out. Because that also takes a lot of bravery to do that. I have spoken to firefighters who are going through the process at the moment of calling out bad behaviour, and I know how stressful and difficult that is.”

The full session is available to watch here.