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Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on Nazir Afzal OBE’s independent cultural review of London Fire Brigade.

Let me start by thanking the hon. 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.

Nazir Afzal has found institutional misogyny, racism and discrimination in the fire service. His report is based on the testimony of 2,000 members and contains 23 recommendations, including the introduction of body-worn video by firefighters, an historic review of complaints about racism, misogyny and bullying, and secure facilities for all women.

As the Minister said, the report comes after the death of Jaden Francois-Esprit, a trainee at Wembley fire station, in my constituency in the London Borough of Brent. Two years ago, Jaden took his own life, aged just 21. My condolences go out to his family and friends. Jaden was teased about every little thing, even the Caribbean food he brought in for lunch, and he made 16 requests to be transferred to another station. Nazir Afzal’s report said:

“Jaden’s position was not unique. We have spoken to others that are equally isolated and harbouring suicidal thoughts.”

I know some Government Members will accuse the report of being too woke or promoting wokery, but let me highlight some of the incidents. 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. If being more woke will stop this behaviour, then I think we are not woke enough.

As the chair of London Labour MPs, I spoke to London fire commissioner Andy Roe, and he is determined to sack every single firefighter who is misogynistic, racist or homophobic at work, and that sends a strong message. I need to know what strong message the Government will send. We cannot bring back Jaden, whose life was lost, but the Government can make sure that other young people, who are starting out on their career in the London Fire Brigade, are not met with the same experience, but with consideration and acceptance by a service that is alert and awake to bullying and discrimination.

The Government must lead the call for change and tackle structural and systemic discrimination in all our old institutions, and understand that being woke is a good thing. That would be a fitting legacy to Jaden.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that the behaviour and the incidents that she just enumerated that were uncovered by the report are completely unacceptable. They have no place in any modern public service, whether that is the fire service or anywhere else. I am sure the whole House will join her and me in condemning that sort of behaviour unreservedly.

I spoke to London fire commissioner Andy Roe on Friday to set out my strong feelings that this behaviour is totally unacceptable and needs to completely end. As the hon. Lady said, he has committed to implementing all 23 of the report’s recommendations, including, importantly, outsourcing the complaints service, so that complaints are dealt with externally to the London Fire Brigade, and going back and looking again at all the complaints made over the last five years, to make sure they have been properly investigated—clearly, in many cases they have not been. He committed to ensuring that anyone found guilty of the sort of behaviour that she outlined from the report will be removed from their position. As I say, the behaviour that has been uncovered is totally unacceptable, and I am sure the whole House will join in condemning it.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and agree that there is absolutely no place for racism or bullying in our society or any of our public services. Will he outline what he might also be doing to ensure that disciplinary measures are dealt with in a timely manner? There was a disciplinary issue in my local police force, as opposed to fire service; that was dealt with well, but it took three years. Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that such cases will be dealt with in a more timely manner in future, whether in the fire service or police force?

My right hon. Friend is right about timeliness; that is one of the reasons why the London Fire Brigade Commissioner has said that he will be outsourcing the handling of complaints: to make sure that they are dealt with faster. Things work a bit differently at the police force, but there is an issue with timeliness. A number of police officers, including both the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police have raised the issue with me as well. We are looking at a number of ways of speeding up the process, including potentially through legislation. I completely recognise what my right hon. Friend has said and we are actively working on that at the moment.

Here we have an urgent question on shocking standards in the fire service, and we have a statement later on appalling conditions in Manston. The Home Secretary is not here for either of those—why not? Where is she?

The report is grim: firefighters huddled around a screen watching porn; putting bacon in the sandwich of a Muslim colleague; and hanging a noose around the locker of a black co-worker—a pack mentality and systematic failure to stamp it out. Some 2,000 firefighters in London have told their story, thanks in large part to Linda Francois, the mother of Jaden, who tragically lost his own life. She campaigned for this report, and we welcome the immediate action that Andy Roe, the commissioner, is taking.

However, these shocking findings are not news to anyone. The Government have been put on notice time and again about cultural failings in our fire service. In 2015, an independent review in Essex found dangerous and pervasive bullying; in 2018, the inspectorate found failings in culture, values and the grievance process; in 2019 the inspectorate warned of an unchecked, toxic culture in many services; and in 2021, it found that change was urgently needed.

What was the Government’s response? It was a haemorrhaging of the budget on training, ignoring the warnings from the inspectorate and playing politics with our fire service. We have repeatedly said that when it comes to police failures we have had enough of the Home Office sitting back and leaving things to individual forces. Will the Minister immediately commission a fundamental review of national standards and culture in our fire service? Will he agree, now, to publishing national statistics on misconduct and will he today commit to national professional standards?

There were 11,000 fires across London alone last year. Our brave firefighters run into danger every day. We must expect the best from all of them and stamp out this culture of misogyny and racism. The Government must end their complacency and act.

I assure the hon. Lady that there is not any complacency. She should be aware—I am sure she is—of the White Paper published just a few months ago setting out a range of measures to tackle shocking cultural issues such as those we have heard discussed this afternoon.

The hon. Lady asked about national standards. As I said in my opening comments, the Fire Standards Board is in the process of publishing a number of standards that will be publicly available and that we will expect fire services to abide by. Those, of course, will be inspected against. She asked about issues outside the London Fire Brigade. I agree that those need attention, and we will be discussing with His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services what work it can do to look at behavioural and cultural issues such as these across the whole country.

Obviously, we will respond to the White Paper consultation shortly. In the meantime, we will of course be working with Commissioner Andy Roe, who I spoke to on Friday, about the issue. As the report relates to London, I will also be in touch with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who of course has responsibility for oversight of the London Fire Brigade.

May I remind the Minister that the Mayor, the Greater London Assembly and the fire services inspectorate ought to have known and done things about this situation years and years ago? Were all these incidents unknown to them? If they were reported, what did they do about them?

Through the Minister, I say to those looking after our great services in London and around the country that they need to be able to answer this question: when will the colour of someone’s skin be as important but no more than the colour of their eyes or hair?

I completely agree with the Father of the House’s last comment about the importance of complete equality, whether based on gender, ethnicity or anything else. Everybody should be treated equally and everybody should have exactly the same opportunity. In relation to the work of the inspectorate, one of the reasons the consultation was published a few months ago was in response to concerns previously raised. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has oversight responsibility for the London Fire Brigade, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and I will raise these issues with him as well.

This report is a catalogue of shameful and appalling behaviour. In April 2020, the National Fire Chiefs Council committed to publishing an annual report on equality, diversity and inclusion. When the Home Affairs Committee questioned the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council earlier this year, he told us that he did not know whether the report had been published. When we questioned the chair again earlier this month, the annual report still had not been published. The NFCC does not plan to publish it until April 2023, and it is not sure whether it will publish another. Does the Minister agree that this as yet unfulfilled commitment and the equivocal statement relating to its work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion are concerning? The leadership and commitment from the top of organisations such as the National Fire Chiefs Council is critical to rooting out the sexism and racism evidenced in this review.

I agree with the Select Committee Chair that this is a vitally important issue. We expect leadership from the entire fire system, including the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council. She mentioned the question of report publication, and I think she said it intended to publish in April 2023. I am happy to take that away and raise it with the NFCC. I am sure she probably expressed a view in the Committee that it should be published sooner.

The right hon. Lady is nodding, so I am happy to raise that point again and see whether publication can be expedited.

May I say how welcome it is that Commissioner Andy Roe commissioned this report and is finally leading and gripping this problem? We know that the Fire Brigades Union is particularly strong within the fire service across the country. What evidence is there of the FBU’s role in reinforcing or challenging this culture?

As of when I came over today from the Home Office, I do not think the FBU had published or put out a formal statement responding to the report, so I am sure my hon. Friend and others in the House will study its report or respond carefully when it chooses to put one out.

Confidence in our emergency services is built on trust—trust that they will be there for people in their moment of need and do everything possible to help them, and trust that no matter what they look like or who they are, they will be treated with respect. Sadly, this report brings that trust into question. In moments such as this, my Vauxhall constituents will need confidence in their emergency services, yet when they hear the shocking reports about the fire brigade, soon after revelations about the police, they might question whether there is a wider cultural problem in our services. I salute the 2,000 firefighters who came forward, but recent scandals in the police and fire service reveal the importance of having a strong whistleblowing procedure. Will the Minister say from the Dispatch Box whether he will commission a national review of standards and culture to ensure that no one is afraid to come forward to raise this abuse?

The hon. Lady is right to say that constituents, regardless of their background, should be able to have full confidence in the service, and that is why I think the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade rightly said that he will implement all 23 recommendations to deliver that. It is worth saying on that point that on a daily basis firefighters across the country put their lives at risk to keep us safe. While being appalled by this report and absolutely determined to make sure there is substantial change, we should keep in mind at the same time that firefighters are putting their lives at risk daily. In terms of her question about whistleblowing, that is something we can take away and consider. Whistleblowing should be available. Firefighters from all backgrounds should be able to raise issues when they encounter them, and it is vital to make sure that those channels exist, so that is something I will take away.

As we have already heard, some of the report’s findings are utterly shocking. I agree with the Minister, however, that many firefighters are out there across the capital, not least in Twickenham fire station, putting their lives on the line every day to protect us all. Can I clarify a couple of his previous answers? Does he agree with Nazir Afzal’s recommendation that we need a national inquiry into the culture of a number of public bodies? Londoners’ faith in many of our public services has been shaken, because the findings of this report are reminiscent of what we found in the Metropolitan police.

In terms of the fire service nationally, as I said, His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services obviously has a role to play. I will be raising that issue with the inspectorate to make sure that it is looking at it. I can speak only for police and fire, but I am sure that ministerial colleagues will want to ensure that such issues are rapidly dealt with for other public services. On a point of clarification, when I said a moment ago that an organisation had not yet issued a statement, I was referring to the union—the Fire Brigades Union.

Although I congratulate the LFB on having the courage to have Nazir Afzal in to do his work and to find these distressing and troubling conclusions—in the Minister’s words—what is to say other forces and institutions are not afflicted by or riddled with the same unacceptable behaviour? As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) said, examples have been found in the Met police that are way more than just the odd bad apple. What advice does the Minister have for employees elsewhere, who are forced to suffer in silence and hide in the shadows in their workplaces, so that this never happens again anywhere?

It is a good question, which comes back to the whistleblowing point that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) raised. It is vital that anyone in any public service, whether fire, police or anything else, can raise concerns—or more than concerns, in the case of the shocking examples that we have heard—and that they are taken seriously, treated confidentially and properly investigated. It is right that the fire brigade is appointing an external organisation to look at the complaints going back more than five years. Every public sector organisation needs to make sure that proper whistleblowing channels are available so that nobody’s concerns get ignored or overlooked.

London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, which we should all be proud of, yet many Londoners listening to this, and those who have heard about and read the report, will have no confidence in our fire service with its racist and misogynist culture. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that firefighters wear body-worn video cameras when they enter families’ homes? Confidence will be very low and we need to ensure that we are working not only for all our constituents but for those people who are watching and may not believe that we are doing our job.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. On confidence, the commissioner of the London Fire Brigade has committed to implementing all 23 recommendations. From memory, one of those is to introduce body-worn cameras, so I believe that is something that the London Fire Brigade intends to introduce. It is vital that the public have confidence in our firefighters, who work bravely on a daily basis to keep us safe. The public must understand, however, that they do that without any bias or prejudice, which is why it is critical to implement the recommendations.

The circumstances and findings of the report are appalling, and troubling for those of us who have worked closely with the London Fire Brigade in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, particularly on product and building safety. Poorer and ethnic minority communities are more at risk, so what will the Government do as part of their response to Grenfell in the light of that? I am also now totally confused about where the Government are on a national inquiry. Yesterday, the Transport Secretary said that he did not want people

“setting up inquiries all over the place.”

Will the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that there will be a national inquiry?

No: to be completely clear, for I think the third time, I have said that I will ask His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services to take a look at these issues. It obviously inspects the 44 fire and rescue services and the 43 police forces regularly. It can also—if it chooses, because it is independent of course—conduct thematic reviews on issues such as this, and I will be raising the issue with it.

I really appreciate that the Minister is appalled by the findings in this report, but he should not really be shocked, as successive reports from His Majesty’s inspectorate have shown similar findings. Why does he think that successive Conservative Governments have ignored the warnings in those reports?

I would say, with great respect, that the reports have not been ignored. As I have said already, a White Paper was published just a short while ago with a number of very detailed and specific recommendations designed to address precisely these kinds of issues, so with respect, I do not accept the characterisation the hon. Lady has set out. Clearly, from this report, urgent action is needed in London, and that is why the 23 recommendations will be implemented in full. I think the commissioner, Andy Roe, has accepted that. I will be discussing the issue with the Mayor of London’s office as well.

This feels depressingly familiar from the many times that Ministers came to this House to reassure us about the culture of the Metropolitan police. Would it not save the Minister and us a great deal of time if he were to agree to the recommendation in the report of a national review, supported by the Labour party, rather than having to come back time and again to repeat these excuses and say there is no complacency, when actually this toxic culture is not being dealt with at local level?

On the right hon. Member’s first point, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) a moment ago, the Government did bring forward a White Paper with a number of quite important reform recommendations designed to address precisely these kinds of issues. There is a huge amount of work going on in relation to misconduct, which we have debated in this House before, including in the police. Of course, action is now taking place specifically in London on the fire service, and I will be discussing these issues with the Mayor of London, who has responsibility for fire in London.

It is a sad fact that in Britain in 2022 we will all come across ignorant people who judge others not by what is in their head and in their heart, but by the colour of their skin, their sexuality or their religion. Unchallenged in any organisation, that is deeply damaging and divisive, and it leads to the problems we have seen in this report. Does the Minister agree with me that this is a failing not only of management, but of the Fire Brigades Union, which should have looked after the interests of all its members?

I think all those responsible for the conduct of the London Fire Brigade need to take responsibility for what has happened. Culture does not come from any one place; it develops in an entire system. That is why I think system-wide change is needed, so I do agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. The 23 recommendations are a starting point, but everyone needs to contribute to changing culture to make sure that gender, race and other characteristics play no part whatsoever in the way somebody is treated.