Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 29th November 2022.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 28 November.

“Let me start by thanking the honourable Member for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, for her Question. The report written by Nazir Afzal OBE makes for deeply troubling reading. The behaviour uncovered is totally unacceptable. The London fire commissioner, Andy Roe, commissioned this review due to his significant concerns about the culture in his own service. The review also followed the tragic suicide of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, a trainee firefighter. I know that colleagues will share my sadness and shock at the testimony of those who shared their experiences, as outlined in the review. I pay tribute to them for their courage.

I wish to assure the House that the Government have taken, and continue to drive, action in this area. Through the introduction of the independent inspection of fire and rescue services, we have highlighted issues with the culture in the fire service, and it is clear that these are not confined to the London Fire Brigade. That is why we published the fire reform White Paper in May, which set out proposals to reform the way that fire services support and value their people. At the heart of the White Paper are plans to improve culture and professionalism, and put ethics at the heart of the service.

Furthermore, the Government have funded a number of important change programmes in the fire sector. We have supported the creation of a new code of ethics for fire and rescue services, setting out clear national expectations for standards of behaviour. The Fire Standards Board, which the Home Office funds, has produced a fire standards code to support the code of ethics, as well as a specific safeguarding standard, supported by guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council. It will shortly publish new fire standards on leadership, addressing issues such as those raised by this deeply disturbing report.

I welcome the fact that the London fire commissioner has committed to addressing and implementing all 23 recommendations in full and note that the National Fire Chiefs Council has also committed to considering the report carefully. Through the White Paper and otherwise, the Government will continue to press to eliminate the appalling behaviour that this shocking report uncovered.”

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 3:45 pm, 29th November 2022

My Lords, female firefighters groped and beaten, a black firefighter having a noose put on his locker, and a Muslim firefighter having sausage and bacon sandwiches stuffed in his pocket—these are all awful examples, among many more, from the appalling report on the culture of the London Fire Brigade published yesterday. The report says that such abuse was shockingly often dismissed as being just banter. Do the Government agree that this has to be a watershed moment? How are the Government going to work with the London Fire Brigade commissioner, Andy Roe, to deliver the much-needed cultural change quickly? What evidence is there that this is a much wider problem than just London, and what are the Government going to do about that? Being shocked is one thing, but what is needed is action.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with the noble Lord; the report written by Nazir Afzal makes for deeply troubling reading indeed. The London fire commissioner, Andy Roe, commissioned this review due to his significant concerns about the culture in his own service. The review also followed the tragic suicide of Jaden Matthew Francois-Esprit, a trainee firefighter; my thoughts and sympathies are obviously with his family. I know that all noble Lords will share our sadness and shock at the testimony of those who shared their experiences for this review, to whom I pay tribute for their courage. I assure the House that the Government have taken and continue to drive action in this area. The London fire commissioner has accepted all 23 recommendations in the report, also stating that he will be fully accountable for improving culture. We will take a very close interest in how he intends to implement this.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this is indeed a deeply troubling report. A life-saving emergency public service is being laid low by corrosively damaging behaviour by a minority of firefighters, despite the obvious dedication of the majority. As the Minister has said, there are 23 recommendations in the Nazir Afzal report. I have a couple of questions. First, will the Minister commit to providing a review of these recommendations within 12 months so that progress can be made and be seen to be made? Secondly, the report exposed the failure of the model of governance. Good governance would have exposed the failings and demanded action well before this horrific bullying, harassment, misogyny, homophobia and racial discrimination was brought to light. What action will the Government take—maybe the Minister can tell us—to remedy this absolute system failure of governance?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. I think it is useful to remind the House that the report confirmed that the disadvantage and discrimination that affects brigade staff does not translate into its operations and does not impact on the way the brigade prevents and responds to incidents. It is important to note that and to note our admiration for firefighters, who walk into trouble as opposed to walking away from it.

As for the Government’s response, we should bear in mind that responsibility for London Fire Brigade rests with the Mayor of London, but the Government published a fire reform White Paper in May. That set out proposals to reform the way the fire service supports and values its people. At its heart are plans to improve culture and professionalism and to put ethics at the heart of the service. The Government have also funded a number of important change programmes in the fire sector. We have supported the creation of a new code of ethics for fire and rescue services, setting out clear national expectations for standards of behaviour. The Fire Standards Board, which is funded by the Home Office, has produced fire standards to support the core code of ethics as well as a specific safeguarding standard, supported by guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council. It will shortly be publishing new fire standards on leadership.

Photo of Lord Udny-Lister Lord Udny-Lister Conservative

My Lords, could the Minister please advise, first, that responsibility for the London Fire Brigade rests with the Mayor of London, who has a deputy mayor responsible specifically for the London Fire Brigade? So my first point is on governance—what is being done on that? Secondly, what will then be done about removing the individuals who have been clearly identified in this process? We only recently had the report of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on how we could not get rid of large numbers of policemen who need to leave the service quickly. Thirdly, national training has always been an issue for the fire brigade. The central Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh was closed many years ago. It still has not been replaced and there are all sorts of training and governance issues around the fire brigade.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is very clear; there is fairly evidently a failure of leadership. However, as I mentioned, I commend the leadership of Andy Roe, who commissioned a report into his own brigade. That was courageous and, as I say, he has committed to acting on all the recommendations.

There were two recommendations on getting rid of people. One is for a historical review of complaints, which will obviously investigate potential historical injustices. I imagine that will have some sort of component to do with removing people.

I am happy to confirm that the Mayor of London has operational responsibility for this, along with his deputy. That is on the website, and he claims it for himself. This is not blaming; it is merely stating a fact.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. He knows that I am always happy to examine issues of governance and new legislation where that is required, be it for the fire brigade or the police, which we will discuss in the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on Thursday. But what is happening in our country? What is happening to the culture of kindness, decency and mutual respect among our fellow citizens and, it seems, I am sorry to say, particularly some men in our country? We now have these allegations—more than allegations; we have case after case in the Metropolitan Police, these new revelations about our much-needed and respected fire service and allegations of bullying in the Palace of Westminster, even at senior Cabinet level. The Deputy Prime Minister is now being investigated for bullying. Will we hear from the Minister for Equalities or from the Prime Minister—the first non-white Prime Minister—who has small daughters for whom he no doubt cares and is concerned? Will we hear some leadership on the culture of dignity and decency in our country?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I cannot speculate about what the Prime Minister might say so I shall speak for myself. I agree with the noble Baroness: I am disturbed by many of these reports that I have to stand here and talk about.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, rather than concentrating on who is to blame, should the Government not be focused on solutions? What have they done to look at parallels between this report and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, into the Metropolitan Police? What are the common lessons and what, therefore, are the urgent steps that need to be taken in both the police service and the fire brigade?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think I made it abundantly clear that I was blaming no one; I was stating a fact. I also made it very clear that we published a fire reform White Paper in May and that Andy Roe has committed to acting on all 23 recommendations.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative

My Lords, if the Minister is open to suggestions for solutions, may I ask him to take one away? Many years ago, the Government committed to finding a definition of Islamophobia. There is an agreed definition which has been adopted by all political parties in Parliament, including the Conservative Party in Scotland. The Government, however, have not adopted that definition. There was a report recently of a private meeting at which it was suggested that the Government had dropped their work on the definition of Islamophobia, but a No. 10 spokesman subsequently confirmed that that is not correct. Can my noble friend please investigate whether this work is continuing, and, if so, can he say when we can find an agreed definition and when that is likely to be published?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The simple answer to my noble friend is that I am afraid I do not know but I will endeavour to find out.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench

My Lords, I start briefly by saying to the Whips that when we have an Urgent Question, we cannot entertain speeches, because several of us would like to contribute—I say that very respectfully. I declare that I am chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and I just have a simple point that I would like the Minister to emphasise. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, rightly spoke of a spread of incidents across different public sector organisations where things have gone appallingly wrong. Will the noble Lord consider that all the organisations that have been mentioned today are covered by the public sector equality duty, which they are required in law to have due regard to? What is his assessment of why they have disregarded that duty?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am not sure that it is the organisations that have disregarded the duty, but clearly, individuals within them have. Obviously, that is part of a larger discussion, and I will take that suggestion back.