In conversation with Matt Wrack: Equality Matters and the Firefighters Manifesto

As General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and TUC President, Matt Wrack is normally the one posing the challenge to leaders and has never been known to reserve judgement when a searing indictment could be levied. Having observed Matt’s first bite at General Secretary from a safe distance in his opening session in May 2005, it was a rare opportunity for this reporter to challenge him on union performance including its equalities record, the complexity of scrutiny and inspection, and assertions from the recently launched Firefighters Manifesto.

A Bit About Matt

Matt Wrack joined London Fire Brigade in 1983 working at Silvertown and Kingsland fire stations in East London before becoming branch secretary for the union in 1984.

He quickly became involved in the Fire Brigades Union becoming a branch secretary in 1984 and went on to represent FBU members in various roles until being elected Assistant General Secretary in March 2005. He was then elected General Secretary in May 2005, where he returned unopposed for a fourth term in 2000. In 2023 he was elected to the role of TUC President.

The union recently launched its Equality Matters campaign on the back of independent research, the FBU Sexual Harassment Research Project. Given the plethora of wide-ranging independent culture reviews, FIRE asks why the union restricted the remit to sexual harassment.


“I’m absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do and some of the findings are alarming”


Sexual Harassment in the Union

“The intention is to cover all those strands in due course. We started from debates at our conference. As you know we have our conference every year that makes our policy, and issues of discrimination have been raised there. But particularly over the past couple of years on sexual harassment, that overlapped with some discussions elsewhere in the trade union movement. There have been I think three reports into trade unions where sexual harassment was a big focus and we felt that we had to move on all of these things.

“Our campaign is called Equality Matters, but we first looked in detail at sexual harassment.

“We commissioned external researchers to do that work. It does not focus on discrimination or harassment in the workplace, it’s talking about within our union and it’s quite alarming from that point of view. There are certainly some very, very serious issues raised within that report.

“One point that was made by the author was that this is going to take some time and this is not something where you just announce a whole series of training courses and think that’s resolved. It’s going to take some time to change things, and I think the first point I’d make is while it is alarming, and I’m not trying to understate it, I don’t think it is on the scale of some of the other union reports that we’ve seen. While it’s very disappointing and upsetting to read those sorts of reports about the organisation that you’re in, the level of such behaviour is not what we’ve seen in some other organisations, which is small comfort.

“I’m absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do and some of the findings are alarming. Some of them I’m less surprised at. We’re in a very male dominated industry and therefore that’s reflected in our union. Although women are disproportionately active in the FBU and we welcome that and that’s great to see, but to some degree it reflects the makeup of the workforce and what the Fire Service is like.”

The conclusions do make stark reading with 30 per cent of women experiencing sexual harassment in the FBU in the last 12 months, but only one in ten reporting due to perceived potential negative responses and being ‘fearful of what it will mean for them within the FBU if they do speak up’. Although the research points to a high level of understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, that did not reduce it from happening with 26 per cent of sexual harassment taking place at an FBU event, with 16.3 per cent reporting it was a brigade or area official. Of those that reported sexual harassment, 34.9 per cent said that no action was taken whilst 50 per cent said ‘I did not think I would be taking seriously’ leading researchers to point out that there is a significant underreporting of sexual harassment in the FBU.

So what are the steps that you will be taking to counter this problem?

“I think we have to drill down into that data a little bit more. One thing that the researchers said to us very clearly is not to rush into things. So, for example, not to announce training of our officials so that we just tick a box and everyone’s going on mandatory training and that will solve it. The question of underreporting was identified. I sit on the TUC General Council as the TUC President and it has done a lot of work on sexual harassment because of incidents in other unions and in some of the very high-profile reports. The question of underreporting is there, and sometimes it is because of the role or power of particular individuals within the union structure. It’s something we’re going to have to look at very, very carefully.”

One area where there is a paucity of research is on the watch system and understanding the fundamental causes of culture problems and discrimination. Whilst far from advocating an overhaul, I ask if the system needs to change?

“I would agree that there’s a lack of research on loads of things, and it’s been one of our concerns for many years. I’ve raised that all over the place and because of underfunding and because of the fragmentation of the Fire Service in the UK, there aren’t real proper structures for doing this sort of research that might have happened on this back in the 80s and 90s.

“On the issue of the watch system itself, I have worked it and I probably am defensive of it. It’s always struck me that part of the reasons to criticise it are, although sometimes dressed up around equality issues, other criticisms of it – the fact that people are very close knit and look after each other. I think that can work both positively and negatively. I think in certain watches, and we’ve got some very high-profile examples of this, it may mean that people protect and defend bad behaviour and cover up for it. But also we have lots of experiences related to us which are very positive of people coming into the Fire Service and having very supportive watches. So I think it can work both ways, which suggests to me that the issue isn’t necessarily that system which may play a role in it. The system is how we’re recruiting and so on.”


“I think it has big risks if a government thinks it can just step in and impose its preferred policy”


Culture Gaps

“If you look back, after 2010, the coalition government and Fire Minister Bob Neill – who actually was one of the better, more engaging ministers I’ve dealt with over the years – but his first press release said something like central government will no longer tell any fire and rescue service who to recruit, how to recruit, who to promote, how to promote to us. That’s a very clear signal to employers in the Fire Service, to chief officers: we’re taking the foot off the pedal on the equality drive and frankly, it’s up to you lot now. And if they didn’t see what was coming, which is, you would then have equality departments and sections reduced or closed down, recruitment initiatives closed down and a complete move away from that agenda, then I think it’s naive not to think what was going to follow.”

The irony was not lost on this reporter when then Home Secretary Theresa May subsequently lambasted the service for poor equality and diversity performance at the launch of the Fire Reform agenda. However, the union could also be accused of with double-standards in its wide-ranging criticism of senior leadership and Fire Service culture. It’s not just management, or fire authority members, or chief officers, it’s everyone in it together is it not, including the union? How do you grasp that realisation, or are you in denial?

“I don’t think we’re in denial. You can see our report was shining a light on ourselves. A number of services have also done that, but not all of them have done by any means.

We are shining a light on ourselves and we’re happy to continue doing that. The points we’re trying to make are that a lot more power has been given to chief fire officers, both in terms of management but also policy setting more widely over the past 20 years. Well, you’ve got to live with the responsibility that many of those cases, the Fire Brigades Union has been pushed out of many of those discussions.”

Another criticism levelled by the union at Fire Service leaders has been marking their own homework, a phrase also used up by Hannah Blythyn MS, Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, when criticising South Wales and replacing the fire authority with unelected commissioners. The FBU criticises PFCCs but are there not some democratically elected fire authorities that are failing? There appears to be a governance problem at all levels, is there not?

“What should be happening is you should have good quality elected politicians on fire authorities, whatever form that takes, and you should have good quality managers running the Fire and Rescue Service who are accountable to the local community through that democratic structure. That’s what should happen. I think that clearly there are significant failings in that.

“The answer to that to me, isn’t, as you say, to replace it with a one-person model in the hands of a PFCC. I have dialogue with the Welsh Minister quite regularly. I’ve got to say I was quite surprised at her statement because it seemed to wander off the issue of equality and diversity onto a whole range of other topics, including frustration at the apparent failure to listen to the Minister’s advisor, Mr Stephens [Dan, Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor and Inspector for Wales], and issues around false alarms. I couldn’t work out what that had to do with how people and members of staff were being treated within the workforce. It seemed a bit disjointed.

“And so that for me set up some alarm bells ringing on the point you’ve raised. Are those commissioners being brought in to tackle the cultural issues, which is extensively what’s going on, or are they being brought in to say, get on with running the fire service? Why is it the chief hasn’t made these changes that the advisor has told them to make, or advise them to make?

“I think it has big risks if a government thinks it can just step in and impose its preferred policy. We would support greater national standards, but they’d have to be a democratic discussion about what those should be. I don’t think this is the way to do it, so I think there’s a problem for me with, who are the commissioners? Who are they accountable to? What’s the role of the local community in that accountability? What’s the role of the workforce in that accountability of trade unions and so on?

“I think there’s a whole raft of unanswered questions in relation to what’s happened in South Wales and I think there are some serious risks in it. But that’s not to minimise how seriously we should take the report that led to it. I’m just not convinced of the answer that the Minister’s chosen.”


“I think there’s a whole raft of unanswered questions in relation to what’s happened in South Wales”


The Firefighters Manifesto

Covering everything from response to extreme weather events, retrofitting sprinklers in higher risk buildings such as schools, the effect of deregulation pre- and post-Grenfell, there is much to commend the Firefighters Manifesto. The FBU’s slant, as to be expected, is clearly preoccupied with cuts and reduction in personnel. Pointing to 12,000 posts having been lost since 2010, one in five positions, the report calls on the next administration to deliver an extra 5,000 firefighters. Why only 5,000? Surely that won’t be enough?

“No, it won’t be enough. Clearly we’ve opposed all those cuts and we think they should all be restored equally. We’re saying what needs to be done as a first step. We go on to say there should then be reviews to work out what fire and rescue services really need. You need to add a genuine risk management approach to it, rather than a budget management approach, which is what the reality on the ground is today. So we’ve said 5,000 but that’s the starting point for us, Andrew. Clearly we want a lot more than that, but as you know, we’re very moderate people.”

Once the laughter subsides, we move on to another focus of the report – looking backwards through rose-tinted glasses. The report laments the loss of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council and appeals to return the Building Research Establishment and Fire Service College to public ownership, as well as reintroducing national standards of fire cover for response times. Shouldn’t we be talking about progress and modernisation, not the good old days?

“I’ve had 20 years of modernisation and I stand by our conclusions. I think if you look at the Fire Service that we’ve created in the post war period by the 1947 Act, it was a world-leading Fire Service, and it may have had all sorts of things wrong with it, but it did have joined up thinking, it had standards.

“When I joined the Fire and Rescue Service or fire brigade, as it was called, you knew as a new recruit where you fitted into a big structure. You knew the legislation that covered you. You knew the bodies. I didn’t know what it meant really, but I understood there was this thing called the CFBAC and you understood there was a thing called the National Joint Council that determined my paying conditions. We were taught this in training school.

“We were taught the legislation that lay behind and you were taught the risk categories that existed nationally and how everyone was required to comply with those. And we had appointments and promotion regulations, which again may be old fashioned. I’m not questioning that, but they were clear. And they were understandable. And how to get promoted was clear and understandable to all.

“I think today you’ve got, you know, 57 varieties, like Heinz, where I don’t think an individual employee knows where they fit into that complex structure, because every fire service sets its own standards and then measures how effectively it meets those standards.

“And remarkably, all say how brilliantly they’re doing, because they’ve managed to meet the target that they themselves set. You couldn’t get away with that anywhere else, so I think I do stand behind what we say there.

“I think if you look at some of the specifics you’ve just mentioned, I don’t think commercial interests should play a role in fire research. We’ve seen the role of commercial interests in the horror at Grenfell and I don’t see how anyone can remotely defend that. The Fire Service College; it was great, you know, and the Fire Brigade Union played a role in its creation and I think it was a terrible mistake to privatise it. I don’t think it’s delivering what it did in the past in the same way.

“So yeah, I stand by all those points that we made in there and I think it would be a more rational and a better way of delivering a Fire Service if we were able to, not in exactly the same way, but if we were able to bring greater public accountability and in many areas, greater public ownership to some of those areas of Fire Service or fire policy.”

Decon Campaign

The Manifesto gives fleeting reference to decontamination, a shame given the FBU’s ground-breaking campaign stemming from a conference session from two years ago that was the best this reporter has witnessed. Personal testament from officials were made to colleagues, friends and family members who have passed away too early. Expanding upon that, FIRE introduced the Firefighter Risk Index series of events, set to continue this year, exploring the full panoply of risks facing firefighters. In addition, FIRE’s forthcoming conference ‘Healthier Firefighters Today: Evidential Approaches to Effective Decontamination’ to be held at West Midlands Fire Service headquarters on July 2, will feature union input.

The wider issue of firefighter safety elicits a firm response. “It strikes me that, in a rational world, it wouldn’t rely on firefighters to set up a lottery to create a fund so they can research their own illnesses. What would happen is, I think, that it’s governmental and an employer’s responsibility, and that’s what should have been happening 30 years ago. And it hasn’t been, which again is more evidence in my view of the fragmentation we’ve seen in our profession.

“On decontamination itself, it raises issues where you started on research and also where we’ve touched on throughout the discussion on governance, and some of the failings, in my view, of governance.”

Institutional Memory

It is only right to close on a contentious point. The union perhaps should be careful for what it wishes for, given it led the call for the reintroduction of the inspectorate, only for Sir Tom Winsor to focus on the FBU’s allegedly regressive impact on the service.

“I think you’re right about the ‘be careful what you wish for’ point because we did oppose the abolition of the old inspectorate and we supported its return. Throughout that period, when it didn’t exist, we were very isolated on that point. I had a quite amusing exchange with a couple of chief officers when they announced it was coming back and one of them commented on how welcome this was. I said, well, you’ve just spent years opposing it coming back, and he said no, we haven’t. I said you need to learn your own history.

“One of the problems in the Fire Service is a lack of institutional memory, I think, because a couple of us have been around, like yourself, for a while. You can remember all the different debates that went on before, but sadly some people either don’t know that history, or perhaps deliberately forget it.

“But yes, we called for it to be returned. I think our criticisms would be, and we’re all very upfront about this, I think it should be a Fire Service only inspectorate. People would expect an inspectorate to be looking at what do the public want from a fire and rescue service? It seemed to me to look at the Fire Brigades Union endlessly, and I don’t think that’s what the public are particularly interested in. They want to know how effective their fire and rescue service is. Can it turn people out to put fires out and such like, rather than is the union too militant? Is Matt Wrack too gobby?”

That is as may be and the same could be turned at this reporter, but we do have one thing in common. Having been around for a while, one cannot help but be mindful of Fire Service legacies, keen to jog memories in case of that old convenient inclination to misremember.


To hear more from FIRE’s exclusive conversation with Matt Wrack, including his thoughts the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, visit: Firefighters Manifesto Podcast – Fire Magazine (

To find out more about the Healthier Firefighters Today: Evidential Approaches to Effective Decontamination visit: Events – Fire Magazine (

Firefighters Manifesto Podcast

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