Firefighters failed by leadership

Published 06/06/2024   |   Last Updated 06/06/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Firefighters have been let down by the people responsible for the governance of fire and rescue services, according to a Senedd Committee.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee heard evidence that Fire Authorities are not up to the task, and that some members lacked the skills needed to do their jobs.

Sound The Alarm, the report launching today, details concerns about Stuart Millington’s appointment as interim Chief Fire Officer at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

The lack of clarity and the defensive tone of the response to these concerns risked reinforcing the negative perceptions about some senior management, Members of the Committee said.

Jenny Rathbone MS, Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee, said:

“Fire service staff in Wales are being let down by the leaders responsible for the governance of the fire and rescue services and we need urgent change to restore faith so all staff feel safe in the workplace.

“We were disturbed by how many people at the top of the current governance system didn’t seem to be aware of how serious the problem is.

“We urge the Welsh Government to take radical steps to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of the governance structure – no change is not an option.”

Weaknesses in Governance

The Committee launched the inquiry into the governance of fire and rescue services following the alarming findings of the Culture Review of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) headed by Fenella Morris QC. The Welsh Government subsequently ordered independent reviews into North and Mid and West Wales FRSs as well.

The culture review raised a key question about the role of the Fire and Rescue Authorities (FRAs).The Fire Officers’ Association told the Committee that members of South Wales FRA lacked the “requisite skills to provide the level of oversight, scrutiny and challenge required when providing governance,” and that many FRA members “make little or no contribution” during meetings and “become confused with regard to the content” of papers.

They concluded that the members of the FRA were “unlikely to be in a position to provide the level of effective strategic oversight needed to assist the organisation in achieving the cultural change required.”

The Committee says the Welsh Government should reform how FRAs work, including reducing their overall size, and encouraging people with outside knowledge and expertise in equality, diversity and inclusion to be co-opted onto each FRA.

Appointment of Stuart Millington

Members heard concerns about the South Wales Commissioners’ appointment of Stuart Millington as interim Chief Fire Officer at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service following the culture review, despite unresolved alleged misconduct relating to bullying.

The Committee found the lack of clarity and the defensive tone of several individuals responding to these concerns troubling and were worried that this could reinforce existing negative perceptions amongst staff and the public about senior management’s commitment to improving the culture in the fire service.

Messages from staff sent to individual Committee members in their constituency roles have not formed part of the formal evidence considered by this inquiry – but have reinforced Members’ concerns that staff confidence in management has been undermined.

The report recommends that the Welsh Government works closely with Fire Commissioners to bring fresh individuals with skills and experiences from outside the sector in Wales into the key roles responsible for organisational culture –starting with the upcoming recruitment process for a new Chief Fire Officer for South Wales.