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March was a busy month for fire announcements, with the Home Office publishing the long-awaited review of police and crime commissioners as well as the response to the fire safety consultation that included how to legislate for some of the Grenfell Inquiry recommendations.
HMICFRS added to the pile by publishing State of Fire and Rescue 2020, its annual assessment of fire and rescue services.
With the opportunity to talk to Sir Tom Winsor the day after publication, it is a case of what to focus on when there is only 30 minutes available. That is why the conversation centred on the recommendations, not because they are new, but because they are unchanged from 2019 and the links with the rest of the recent announcements makes them even more important than before.
Elsewhere in State of Fire, Sir Tom states that 45 fire and rescue services is too many. There are, by way of contrast, 39 police forces in England. Sir Tom said: “There is a perfectly valid case for simplification. It is also my view that there are too many police forces. The case for merging police forces now is not a strong one because there are far too many things occupying the police’s attention.”
He said that having observed reorganisations in other sectors: “When you reorganise you bleed.” By this he meant that the distraction of mergers results in leaders looking inwards and not outwards at the delivery of services to the public.
“Making the areas coterminous would have obvious administrative benefits,” he said. And this is fine where police and fire have the same boundaries but that is not the case throughout England. There is a real problem in the south west where police and fire just do not match up. Tearing them apart simply to align from a governance point of view or in pursuit of political doctrine would be a hard sell to local people and as Sir Tom said, there is lots more to concern leaders in fire and rescue services.
None of this is likely to deter the government: PFCCs are the way forward. There will be an almighty row about this change, as members of fire and rescue authorities and the Local Government Association will seek to retain their position. Sir Tom is remarkably sanguine on this point. “Of course, there are rows about these things. When people lose power, they get upset. If it is the will of Parliament, they will just have to get with the programme.” Quite.
The position of HMICFRS is clearly set out in State of Fire: “Evidence-based, thorough analysis and assessment of performance, arrived at in fair processes, is the right of every public service.”
It is hard to reconcile that with the response by Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who tweeted the day after publication: ‘This report is the latest in a long line of attempts to attack the right of firefighters to be represented by a trade union and to roll back hard-won terms and conditions’.
Sharing this quote with Sir Tom, he said that in the three and a half years he has been Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue, he had never had any communication with Matt Wrack despite offering to do so. Zoë Billingham was keen to stress that HMICFRS does engage with the FBU, through consultation on its inspection methodology and extensively through staff surveys.
The response by Matt after the publication of State of Fire came not long after his furious tweets about HMICFRS’s Covid-19 inspection reports, saying that he had not seen the reports until they were leaked by a journalist. Zoë said that she had personally briefed Matt and his leadership team on the day of publication but had not provided them with an embargoed report.
This all sounds a bit petty, but the relationship between HMICFRS and the unions is important and having listened to Sir Tom speak at the LGA Fire conference earlier in the month (see pg 17), there is no doubt that he respects their position and contribution to the delivery of fire and rescue services. He confirmed this again during the interview: “I am very much in favour of organised labour and trade unions; they are an essential part of our democracy. Everything depends on how they conduct themselves.”
Sir Tom has revised the deadline for the recommendation relating to reform of pay negotiating machinery to a new date of June 2021. It seems odd that this complex and challenging task has a deadline due in a few months and yet recommendations on the role of the Fire and Rescue Service and operational independence can wait until the Fire Reform White Paper is published. Sir Tom responded: “We don’t know when the White Paper is going to come out.”
The implication of this is that pay negotiating machinery – and that includes the operation of the National Joint Council and the Grey Book for terms and conditions – is more urgent and by setting a deadline, will concentrate minds. It is likely that the Home Office will sweep it up with the other two recommendations and add it to the Fire Reform White Paper, as Sir Tom noted: “I do expect NJC reform to be part of the White Paper, but I just don’t know.” Later in the interview, Sir Tom said that ministers do seem to be incredibly keen on reform, so that may be enough of an accelerant.
Timing issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with NJC reform. HMICFRS only inspects fire and rescue services in England, the Home Office is only interested in England, but the NJC is a UK-wide body. Is NJC reform to England alone even possible? “There would either have to be separation or the Scots and the Welsh would have to join in. It is not beyond the wit of man,” he observed drily.
Moving on to talk about options for NJC reform, he said that there may be mileage in changing the way the Police Remuneration and Review body works to include fire. This has been operating for six years, he said it has a lot of expertise and that there would be advantages in terms of efficiency and economy to have a single body for the two services. “I have no idea if the government is sympathetic to this idea. I am sure they have it under consideration.” It is worth noting that it was Sir Tom’s 2012 recommendation about policy pay reform that resulted in the creation of the Police Remuneration and Review body two years later, so he has a track record here.
It appears that all roads lead back to the promised Fire Reform White Paper. This is still a relatively new development, with first mentions of it appearing around the end of February. There are echoes of 2002 here with the Bain review and the resulting 2004 Fire and Rescue Services Act. That represented a fundamental shift in how fire and rescue services operated and came after the bitter strikes that saw braziers on the forecourts of fire stations. Hopefully, that imagery will stay firmly in the past. Asked if he thought that reform in 2021 would see changes to the 2004 Act, Sir Tom said “yes it would”, adding: “It will not be a soft touch white paper.”
HMICFRS seem to be very concerned about operational independence for chief fire officers; it forms the basis of one of the recommendations and suggests there should be legislation to give it effect. This issue needs unpacking a bit and connecting with both the governance issue and that of status, particularly whether the chief fire officer should be corporation sole.
First of all, why does it matter? Sir Tom asserted that chief fire officers are in a much weaker position than chief constables and went further to explain: “For the chief constable, operational independence is sacrosanct; it is enshrined in legislation and sets the relationship between the PCC and the chief constable. The fire and rescue authority has far more power to intrude and direct the CFO in relation to decisions. The CFO has to negotiate operational decisions with the people to whom he is directing. That puts the CFO in a squeeze from two different directions.”
There is an alternative view on operational independence from the Fire Brigades Union in their response to State of Fire. “Granting operational independence to fire chiefs is in reality a Trojan horse for growing independence from appropriate scrutiny and accountability, allowing bosses to draw up and implement unsafe plans or attacks on terms and conditions and to try to limit opposition from their own staff or local communities.”
Having explained in some detail why operational independence is important in terms of the PCC having no professional expertise to direct operations and also for police, rather than fire, the power of arrest lies only with the chief constable and his staff, Sir Tom concluded: “When PFCCs get fire, they should by then be quite accustomed to respecting operational independence.” So perhaps on that basis, legislating for it will not be necessary? The extent to which the government wants to go on this matter is highly likely to appear in the fire reform white paper.
The chief constable has statutory operational independence and is corporation sole. A corporation sole is an individual person who represents an official position which has a single legal entity. He or she is the employer of the police staff; in turn, the PCC employs the chief constable. Should that also be the case for the chief fire officer, are they inextricably linked? Sir Tom was quite blunt in his response to this question: “That’s a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down.”
The National Fire Chiefs Council has a different view. Responding to the Home Office’s PCC Review, Roy Wilsher said: “The NFCC has consistently stated if fire services are governed by a PFCC, it is imperative CFO roles are safeguarded and have the same standing as a chief constable. Currently, chief constables are corporations sole, act as the employer and have operational independence. The same operational positioning for CFOs is vital.”
The matter of operational independence can be resolved without having to change governance, it does require legislation but does not rely on the existence of the PFCC. Sir Tom said: “It will be simpler when PFCCs take over.”
It looks like the relationship between governance, the employment status and the operational independence issue is pretty entangled and will need to be well thought through in the White Paper. Allying this to the discussion about pay negotiations, then it gets even more opaque and hard to fathom. It is going to take a fair bit of civil service thinking and ministerial strategic direction to get all this to line up and make sense in a reasonable timescale. Sir Tom’s earlier comment about the impact on the service of time spent on reorganisation may well turn out to be remarkably prescient.
There are six recommendations in State of Fire. None of them relate to the elephant in the room: that the fire and rescue service continues to be mostly male and white. State of Fire includes the incredibly strong statement: “Lack of diversity and equality is a conspicuous failure of fairness that shames the sector.” This is powerful stuff and yet it does not warrant a recommendation in its own right. Surely what gets recommended gets done?
“I don’t think it’s essential to make a recommendation if there are words as strong as those, that is quite a shock to the system. The reality is that the Fire and Rescue Service knows they are way behind where they need to be on this matter. There is a renewed momentum to fix it. We’ll see how it goes, maybe next year we’ll give it another push.”
The second round of inspections will include a greater emphasis on equality and diversity, with inspectors shining a brighter light than before to find evidence of what is going on in fire and rescue services. That is likely to be very revealing and may well provide the push that HMICFRS needs to make this important subject the focus of a new recommendation for change.
The Fire Reform White Paper will be strongly influenced by the recommendations in State of Fire, so understanding what they are and where the come from is important and it should be read in full by anyone working in the sector.
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