A watershed moment for the emergency services

Words: Catherine Levin, Editor, Emergency Services Times

March 2023 will go down in the history of the emergency services as the month that the public looked at its police and fire and rescue service and asked why they had let them down. With the publication of two major reports in the space of a week, I look at what they tell us about values and culture and what comes next in the journey to regain public trust.

Baroness Louise Casey DBE CB published her independent review into the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police Service. The review was commissioned in the aftermath of the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer in March 2021. Her review found, ‘Widespread bullying, discrimination, institutional homophobia, misogyny and racism, and other unacceptable behaviours which are a far cry from the high ethical standards the public rightly expects of its police officers.’

A week later, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue published its spotlight report into the values and culture of the 44 fire and rescue services in England.  It sets out the extent to which bullying, harassment and discrimination exist across fire and rescue services and found examples in every single service.

The basis for change

Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley responded to the 363-page report with an apology. “Baroness Casey’s report sparks feelings of shame and anger – but it also increases our resolve. We’ve let people down, I am sorry. It must be a catalyst for police reform.” He of course, has the power to make the ‘cultural shift’ that Baroness Casey calls for, whereas HMICFRS has limited influence to change the way services operate.

HMI Roy Wilsher acknowledges that the inspectorate cannot investigate specific allegations, thanking those that are trying to improve culture at national and local level. He concludes his report, ‘It continues to concern me that some members of the service don’t treat each other or members of the public with respect and in some cases, have intentionally caused harm. It is time for this behaviour to stop.’

Toxic culture

The report from HMICFRS is not the first time that values and cultures have been examined in fire and rescue services. For example, in 2015, former senior civil servant Irene Lucas was commissioned by the then Essex Fire and Rescue Authority to examine the culture of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service. She famously described the culture as toxic and her damning report into the long-term cultural problems of the service led to Essex becoming the first service to be taken over by a Police Fire and Crime Commissioner.

The word toxic comes up both in the Casey Review and HMI report and it does so in similar contexts: applying to small, close-knit units where staff rarely move on, and appear to be beyond the norms when it comes to behaviours and reporting wrongdoing.

The HMI report describes how ‘informal sub-cultures’ have formed that lead to exclusionary practices contrary to the organisation’s culture and are ‘impenetrable’ to new staff. Fire station watches – the shift pattern worked by firefighters – come under scrutiny and HMI finds examples of unacceptable behaviour across the country whereas in the Met’s report, the focus is on elite specialist units. Baroness Casey describes the Met’s specialist firearms command known as MO19 as having a ‘deeply troubling, toxic culture,’ and the culture, behaviours and practices of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command are so awful, she recommends that it is disbanded and reformed.  

Career limiting

The Met report provides great depth to its case studies based on the review team carrying out hundreds of meetings with Met officers and staff, visiting 23 different operational commands and a survey completed by over 6,500 serving or former staff. The examples demonstrate the presence of racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia across the Met, many of which were heavily reported in the media in the aftermath of the report’s publication.

While unacceptable behaviours continue unchallenged, those who have attempted to do so have often suffered as a result. Baroness Casey writes about senior leaders ‘who bravely attempt to change the culture’ and are ‘overruled, isolated and side-lined.’ There is no hope if senior leaders cannot effect change at more junior levels in their organisation. It is alarming to learn that senior officers were ‘warned off’ from complaining about poor behaviour and practices if they wanted to progress in their careers. A culture of not speaking up was ‘ingrained.’

New recruits reported that they felt they had to assimilate to fit in when joining a fire station and not question local norms as this would lead to ‘career suicide’. And here too, there is evidence that staff were reluctant to raise issues with middle and senior management, ‘as they were told they would be moved if they did.’

Career limitation is developed in a slightly different way in the HMI report, as the inspectors focus on discrimination faced by certain groups of staff. Effective understanding of workforce skills and capability is linked to culture, says the report and it goes on to describe how negative behaviour towards non-operational staff or on-call firefighters can ‘adversely affect career progression and opportunities for them in the service.’

Reforming approaches to misconduct

Where staff are inhibited to report misconduct because of the impact it could have on their own career progression, poor behaviour will remain unchallenged. Both reports provide considerable detail on what can be done to reform existing procedures to encourage openness and to welcome challenge to existing norms.

In addition to combing through existing evidence contained in its own reports and surveys, the inspectorate also asked fire and rescue services to supply information about allegations of gross misconduct currently under investigation and other grievances and complaints where ‘alleged behaviour of individuals calls into question’ the values and culture of the organisation.

Despite this, the inspectorate notes that it is not confident that it has the full picture and cites concerns about how well misconduct cases are being handled, with nine recommendations in the HMICFRS report about how it could be improved.

Professional standards functions

The inspectorate will have looked at the interim report from Baroness Casey published last year, where she concluded that the Met’s internal misconduct system was not fit for purpose. ‘Cases are taking too long to resolve, allegations are more likely to be dismissed than acted upon, the burden on those raising concerns is too heavy, and there is racial disparity across the system, with White officers dealt with less harshly than Black or Asian officers.’ She also adds that none of this is new.

The Met has a Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) and Baroness Casey writes in her interim report that it, ‘does not fully command the confidence of officers and staff and requires a significant change to do so.’ The report team was told that the well-known nick name for the DPS is the Directorate of Double Standards.

And yet, HMICFRS is recommending in its report that individual fire and rescue services should create a professional standards function to handle conduct concerns, have oversight of cases, ensure fairness and act as a point of contact for all staff involved in a case.

HMI also refers to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which provides a report line for police forces in England. There is no national equivalent for fire and rescue services and the inspectorate notes that even if it was introduced, ‘it alone isn’t the answer to the challenges that surround raising concerns.’ The IOPC has its own troubles, as in December 2022, Michael Lockwood, Director General of the IOPC resigned after it was revealed that he himself was subject to police investigation into an historic allegation.

For policing, Baroness Casey concludes it is for the Home Secretary, along with the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to look at the legal and regulatory framework regarding misconduct. It is a longer-term ambition and one, she notes in her final report should not impede progress on urgent improvements required in the Met. It looks like fire and rescue services will need to have an eye to and a say in what happens here so that individual services do not set up systems in a way that has clearly failed in the Met.

Background checks

There is no legal obligation for fire and rescue services to run background checks such as DBS checks. “This creates an unacceptable risk that must be addressed,” said HMI Wilsher at the report launch. HMI recommends that checks are carried out on all new and existing staff. This would require a change in legislation and the inspectorate also recommends further changes to criminal records regulations as well.

The Fire Standards Board is cited many times in this report as a key enabler of the change the inspectorate wants to see. In one recommendation, the Board along with the National Fire Chiefs Council are urged to review existing standards and guidance to set out the requirement for background checks and clarify minimum requirements for all roles, particularly those that involve engagement with vulnerable people.

It then states that the Board should define, ‘the standards required to embed a culture across fire and rescue services that empowers all members of staff and local communities to report concerns.’ It has already gone some way to achieve this through the publication of the Code of Ethics that all fire and rescue services should have adopted, but this recommendation suggests there is much further to go to see it make a difference.  In addition, the inspectorate makes a specific recommendation for chief fire officers to review their implementation of the Code ‘to make sure it is being applied across their services.’

The fire and rescue experience must be seen against the backdrop of the inspectorate’s substantial 163-page report from November 2022 where HMI Matt Parr set out 43 recommendations over five areas covering its inspection of vetting, misconduct and misogyny in the police service. 18 of these recommendations are about vetting and while much of this is only relevant to police, fire and rescue services would benefit from the learning contained in this report. It demonstrates the depth of the need for vetting for police officers that is so different to fire and rescue services and how in the Met Police this has failed with devastating consequences.

Structural change

Baroness Casey calls for an independent progress review to be carried out in two years and again in five years. If sufficient progress is not being made at these points, she concludes, ‘more radical, structural options, such as dividing up the Met into national, specialist and London responsibilities, should be considered to ensure the service to Londoners is prioritised.’

The reference to structural change is not made lightly and it will take a brave Home Secretary to break up the Met and deal with the fallout from doing so. The Home Secretary may be more insistent on structural change in fire and rescue services when the response to the fire reform white paper eventually emerges. That change will be focused on governance and is likely to lead to the creation of more Police Fire and Crime Commissioners – there are only five currently and the initial enthusiasm for this approach waned some time ago.

New governance for fire and rescue services may lead to new approaches to dealing with the problems about values and culture so starkly set out in the HMI report, but it won’t be enough. Restructuring the Met won’t be a panacea either as it is a distraction from the effort and activity that should be taking place to make the behavioural changes that are required.

What next?

It is no coincidence that these two reports came out so close together. The Home Secretary commissioned both and it is important to look at them together and alongside the HMI vetting report, Nazir Afzal’s November 2022 Independent Cultural Review of London Fire Brigade as well as the interim report from Baroness Casey to gain a full picture of the depth of what needs to change to improve confidence and trust in police and fire.

As the media moves on from reporting the findings, the problems underlying values and culture in policing and fire remain; they have been around a long time and will do so in the future because it takes a generation to change attitudes ingrained over decades. It takes a lot of courage, time and will at all levels and I am not optimistic that these reports will be any different to those that have come before: different authors, different times but the same problems. I hope I’m wrong.



Photo credit: Met Police.

This article first appeared in the April issue of Emergency Services Times.