On 8 December 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following topical question for short debate:

Baroness Chakrabarti (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Independent Cultural Review of the London Fire Brigade, published on 26 November

1. The independent cultural review of the London Fire Brigade

1.1 Background

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) is one of the largest firefighting and rescue organisations in the world. It deals with a range of serious incidents including fires in the home, non-domestic building fires and arson. It also responds to terrorist incidents, flooding and road traffic collisions. During the pandemic, the LFB drove ambulances to aid the London Ambulance Service and responded to Covid-19 deaths in the community. As an organisation, it employs over 5,600 people made up of control, fire rescue (FRS) and operational staff.

In March 2021, London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe commissioned a review into the workplace culture of the LFB. The review was set up in response to the death of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, a firefighter who took his own life in August 2020. Following his death, Mr Francois-Esprit’s family had raised concerns that he had been bullied due to his race. The LFB has said that it had been aware of “longstanding issues with poor culture and behaviour” prior to this and had made “many attempts to address these issues, but without success”.

Nazir Afzal was appointed to lead the review. Mr Afzal is the chancellor of the University of Manchester and was formerly the chief crown prosecutor for northwest England and the chief executive of the country’s police and crime commissioners. Over a 10-month period, Mr Afzal and his team gathered evidence on “what people experienced in their working environment and the wider culture”. Evidence was collected through desktop research, an online survey, focus groups, interviews, station visits and by inviting staff to contact the team through a secure and private email address.

1.2 The findings

In November 2022, the ‘Independent cultural review of London Fire Brigade’ was published. In the conclusion of the report, Mr Afzal praised the work of the LFB, especially in relation to the service it had provided during the pandemic. However, he also raised several concerns, including that evidence had shown the LFB to be “institutionally misogynist and racist”.

Mr Afzal said that the review had found “dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women” and that the “barriers faced by people of colour spoke for themselves”. He said that:

Not only were they more likely to be subject to disciplinary action, less likely to be promoted and largely unrepresented at senior levels, but they were also frequently the target of racist abuse.

Mr Afzal said that although it was encouraging to see an increase in diversity at board level, he argued that there was a need for more urgency in “rooting out deeply prejudiced staff and inappropriate behaviour and attitudes”. A finding that LGBTQ+ staff and people who are neurologically diverse were treated unfavourably compared with others was also reported.

In addition, the review heard from staff who had not previously spoken out. Mr Afzal said that these individuals had often been convinced that the consequences of speaking out would be worse than the consequences of silence. He noted that when perpetrators had faced allegations, they had often “turn[ed] on their victims” and encouraged others to do the same.

Looking forward, Mr Afzal said that unless the “toxic culture that allows bullying and abuse to be normalised is tackled”, he feared that other firefighters could take their lives. He also argued that similar cultural problems existed in other fire brigades and that the findings of his review should put them “on notice”. Focusing on leadership, Mr Afzal said that the LFB commissioner would need to lead the internal programme to deliver change and argued that it would need to be properly resourced and supported.

Comparing the findings to recent problems experienced by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), Mr Afzal said that he wanted to draw a distinction. He said that whereas in the MPS there had been “flagrant examples of police officers misusing power and allowing prejudice to shape their actions”, the review had not found the same level of operational bigotry in the LFB.

In a letter to Andy Roe, the London fire commissioner, following the completion of the report, Mr Afzal thanked him for his “leadership and courage” in opening up the culture of the LFB to public scrutiny”. He said that it was to Mr Roe’s credit that the review had left “no stone unturned” and called on him to ensure that the review was a watershed moment.

1.3 The recommendations

In the review, Mr Afzal set out 23 recommendations which focused on:

  • creating a workplace where everyone is afforded dignity
  • engaging better with London communities
  • building a leadership model of trust
  • improving wellbeing
  • transforming human resources services

For example, Mr Afzal recommended that the LFB should:

  • adopt a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, racist and misogynistic behaviour in the workplace and take appropriate action to root out a toxic culture
  • consider anonymised reporting of incidents relating to bullying, misogyny and racism
  • consider a historic review of complaints made over the last five years
  • ensure there are secure facilities for all women in stations
  • consider introducing body worn video for fire safety home visits
  • gather better information on employee red flags that signal the need for early intervention to prevent deteriorating mental health
  • investigate why Black and minority ethnic staff are more likely to raise a grievance and twice as likely to be subject to disciplinary hearings in comparison with their White counterparts

2. Reaction to the independent review

2.1 London fire commissioner and National Fire Chiefs Council

Following the publication of the review, London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe wrote to Mr Afzal. Mr Roe said that the report had contained accounts of “shockingly poor behaviour” and apologised for the harm that had been caused.

Focusing on the recommendations, Mr Roe said that he accepted them in full and would write to Mr Afzal to set out the plans and actions he intended to take. Mr Roe also said that he would be “fully accountable” for improving culture. Commenting further on his stance, he said:

There is no place for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the brigade and from today it will be completely clear what behaviour isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be.

Mr Roe said that he would take immediate action to address the core problems, including:

  • suspending anyone accused of discrimination, harassment and bullying immediately and dismissing them if the accusation was upheld
  • introducing an external complaints service to handle cases objectively and confidentially “so that staff can feel safe to speak up”
  • reviewing all cases from the past five years
  • reviewing policies to challenge the structures and values that allowed behaviours to persist
  • piloting providing staff with body worn cameras to provide reassurances when home safety visits were carried out
  • encouraging members of the public to report any poor behaviour on the LFB website

On leadership, Mr Roe said that LFB leaders, including himself, needed to “reflect on the contribution we’ve made to the challenges we face”. He also said that any leaders who did not value transparency, accountability and fairness would not have a place in the LFB. He added that all senior leaders would be undertaking inclusive leadership training and that he would be visiting staff to “talk candidly” about the review and his expectations.

Mark Hardingham, the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), agreed that the findings of the review were “wholly unacceptable”. He said that the NFCC would study the report and its recommendations carefully and consider them in the context of every fire and rescue service in the UK.

2.2 House of Commons urgent question

On 28 November 2022, Dawn Butler (Labour MP for Brent Central) was granted an urgent question in the House of Commons. Ms Butler asked the secretary of state to make a statement on the review. Speaking for the government, the minister for crime, policing and fire, Chris Philp, said that the report made for “deeply troubling reading” and that the behaviour which had been uncovered was “totally unacceptable”. However, he welcomed Mr Roe’s response and noted that the NFCC had committed to considering the findings.

Focusing on government policy, Mr Philp said that it had “taken, and continue[d] to drive, action in this area”. He highlighted the publication of the fire reform white paper in May 2021. He said that the white paper had set out “proposals to reform the way that fire services support and value their people”. It also included plans to improve culture and professionalism and “put ethics at the heart of the service”. The government consulted on the plans between May and July 2022 and is currently analysing the feedback it received.

In addition, Mr Philp said that the government had funded various change programmes in the fire sector. He noted that the government had supported the creation of a new code of ethics for fire and rescue services which he said had set out clear national expectations for standards of behaviour. The fire standards board, which the Home Office has funded, has also produced a fire standards code to support the code of ethics, as well as a specific safeguarding standard which was supported by guidance from the NFCC. Mr Philp said that the board would shortly publish new fire standards on leadership which would address issues such as those raised by the independent review.

Responding to Mr Philp’s statement, Ms Butler referred to Mr Francois-Esprit’s case and noted other incidents highlighted in the report:

Female firefighters were found to have been groped and beaten, and had their helmets filled with urine and their clothes violated with semen. Some male firefighters who visited women’s homes for safety visits would go through drawers looking for underwear and sex toys. A black firefighter had a noose put on his locker, and a Muslim firefighter had bacon and sausages stuffed in his pockets and a terrorist hotline sign posted on his locker.

Ms Butler said that the government “must lead the call for change and tackle structural and systemic discrimination in all our old institutions”.

Labour’s shadow minister for policing, Sarah Jones, said that the “shocking findings are not news to anyone”. Ms Jones argued that previous reviews had shown cultural problems in the fire service and claimed that the government had ignored these warnings. She asked Mr Philp if he would commission a fundamental review of national standards and culture in the fire service, agree to publishing national statistics on misconduct, and commit to national professional standards. In response, Mr Philp referred to the government’s fire white paper and work by the fire standards board on national standards. He also said that he would be talking to His Majesty’s Inspectorate about what it could do to address cultural and behavioural issues and would also be in touch with Andy Roe and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

The Labour chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Diana Johnson, also commented. Ms Johnson noted that in April 2020, the NFCC had committed to publishing an annual report on equality, diversity and inclusion. However, she said that this report would not be published until April 2023 and that the NFCC was unsure whether it would publish another. Ms Johnson argued that this “unfulfilled commitment and the equivocal statement relating to its work to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion” was concerning. Mr Philp said that he would raise the publication of the report with the NFCC to see whether it could be published sooner.

2.3 Other commentators

Speaking to the Guardian, the mother of Mr Francois-Esprit, Linda Francois, welcomed the findings. She said that she hoped the recommendations would lead to change:

While this report is a good start there’s a lot more work to be done. They have said this report is a legacy for Jaden. A true legacy will be to make sure that there are lasting changes in the workplace.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) issued a statement following the publication of the review. Stating that it made for “difficult reading”, the union said that there is “no place for such behaviour or attitudes” within either the fire and rescue service or within the union itself. It noted that it has organised sections for black and ethnic minority, women, and LGBT members and that these sections would be “involved in any fuller response” to the review.

Considering its work to address the issues of discrimination and harassment, the union said that it would review the effectiveness of its rules and policies and would continue work with other trade unions on the issue of sexual harassment. The union also highlighted that the review had noted issues with morale and engagement as well as pay restraints.

The union said that it had raised many of the issues contained in the report previously and it therefore was sceptical about the changes senior leaders would implement regarding their own behaviour. However, it said that the London region of the FBU was committed to working to address the serious concerns that had been raised.

The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also commented on the review. He said that the findings were “abhorrent” and argued that it must be “nothing short of a watershed moment”. Mr Khan also gave his support to Mr Roe, saying that he recognises the scale of the problems and “is the right person to lead the deep-rooted reform needed”.

3. Earlier reviews

Prior to Mr Afzal’s review, other reports have focused on cultural issues in the fire service in London. For example, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has said that LFB required improvement “at looking after its people”. It made this finding following an assessment in 2019.

In an update in July 2022, the HMICFRS said that since the 2019 inspection good progress had been made in some areas but that improvement was needed in workforce planning. On culture, it said that while LFB had introduced and communicated a clear set of values to staff, it was concerned to have found some behaviour which was not in line with these standards. It highlighted that not all staff were confident in reporting concerns for fear of detrimental treatment by others.

The inspection also found that not all staff understood the benefits of a diverse workforce and noted that it had heard examples of racial and gender-based discriminatory behaviour. The LFB was found to have made limited progress towards providing suitable facilities for women at fire stations since 2019 and had not done enough to manage the individual performance of staff. It argued that this had meant that the LFB did not have a process to identify and develop high-potential staff.

Cover image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay