Firefighters failed by leadership, damning Senedd committee report finds

A Senedd committee called on the Welsh Government to reform how Fire and Rescue Authorities work
-Credit: (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Firefighters in Wales are being let down by leadership failings, a damning Senedd committee report has found. The Equality and Social Justice Committee heard evidence that fire authorities are not up to the task and some members lacked the skills required for their jobs.

Published today, the report, called Sound The Alarm, also details concerns about Stuart Millington’s appointment as interim Chief Fire Officer at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. The "defensive tone" of the response to these concerns was "troubling" and "risked reinforcing the negative perceptions amongst staff and the public about senior management", the committee said.

The committee's inquiry into the governance of fire and rescue services was prompted by the "alarming findings" of the Culture Review of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, headed by Fenella Morris KC. Following this, the Welsh Government ordered independent reviews into North and Mid and West Wales FRSs as well.

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The Morris culture review questioned 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." Join our WhatsApp news community here for the latest breaking news

The FOA also said that many FRA members “make little or no contribution” during meetings and “become confused with regard to the content” of papers. The association 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.”

In the report, the committee called on the Welsh Government to 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. The committee also heard concerns about the South Wales Commissioners’ appointment of Stuart Millington as interim Chief Fire Officer at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service in February this year following the culture review, despite unresolved alleged misconduct relating to bullying.

"We found the lack of clarity and the defensive, bordering on dismissive, tone of several individuals responding to these concerns troubling. In our view the questions surrounding the appointment have risked reinforcing some of the negative perceptions amongst staff and the public about senior management and the commitment to change," the committee's report said.

"Moreover, some of our Members in their roles representing constituents have also received representations from staff directly. While it has not been possible for the Committee to accept these as formal evidence to the inquiry, these testimonies have nevertheless given us reason to believe, anecdotally at least, that staff confidence in the process has been undermined," it added. For the latest Welsh news delivered to your inbox sign up to our newsletter

The report recommended that the Welsh Government works closely with Fire Commissioners "to bring fresh individuals with skills and experiences from outside the sector and, where desirable, beyond Wales into key posts, especially posts that have the most impact in terms of wider organisational culture" - starting with the upcoming recruitment process for a new Chief Fire Officer for South Wales.

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.”

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said the report confirmed "serious failings of leadership at the very top". "Chief fire officers and senior managers have presided over a situation in which those who speak out against bullying, harassment and discrimination are silenced or victimised," he said.

"To build the trust needed to transform the service, firefighters must be given a voice and fire service leaders must be held to account. Parachuting in managers with no experience of firefighting will only further entrench a lack of confidence in leadership."