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Massive discriminatory issues emerge at the London Fire Brigade prompting immediate action

Mick the Ram

Nov 26, 2022

A shocking report has identified a high levels of “institutional misogyny, racism, bullying, prejudice and general harassment” within the London Fire Brigade (LFB), which has left bosses reeling. Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor for the North West of England, led an independent review which exposed severe discriminatory behaviour throughout the service.

The study was commissioned after firefighter Jaden Francois-Esprit took his own life, and his family voiced concerns that it was as a result of being bullied persistently. The appraisal concluded that unless the “toxic culture” is tackled head on, there could be other tragic cases occur in the near future.

Abuse evident at all levels of the brigade

The report was put together following a 10 month evaluation by a seven-strong team, which gathered evidence of what people experienced in their working environment and its wider supporting culture.

It lists a number of instances of abuse and poor behaviour at almost all levels of the LFB, which Mr Afzal stated should be a wake up call for those in charge and might make people interested in a career in the service, think twice about joining such a fractured organisation.

Some of the incidents he uncovered included the targetting of ethnic minorities, women being sexually taunted and subjected to obscene video footage, and groping episodes.

Union adds its voice

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said in a carefully constructed statement that the report confirmed concerns it had highlighted over many years. Gareth Cook, FBU’s regional organiser for London, said morale at the LFB was exceptionally low, with almost half of their members frustrated in their job, with a very poor work-life balance. Worryingly, he announced: “We remain sceptical about the changes senior leaders will implement with regards to their own behaviours.” 

Appalling examples make for shameful reading

Many of the examples brought to everyone’s attention in the report will have made extremely uncomfortable reading for those at the top.

In one instance a Muslim firefighter was spoken to in an Indian accent by his colleagues and had a piece of bacon put in his sandwich. When he transferred to another watch, his colleagues put a pork sausage in his pocket and he had a terrorism hotline sticker placed on his locker; however, his complaints were dismissed as unsubstantiated. He eventually collapsed at work and was admitted to hospital, and has since been diagnosed with PTSD and has had suicidal thoughts.

Other startling cases involved a black firefighter having a mock noose put by his locker, and a female firefighter receiving a video of a colleague exposing himself.

Not safe even in senior positions

Even senior officers were not immune from the abuse with former Commissioner Dany Cotton, who became the first woman to lead the LFB, reported that she had received death threats following an anti-sexism campaign that she promoted.

Basically, the review indicated that black, and Asian staff felt they had to work twice as hard to be seen and heard, plus they were more likely to be disciplined and less likely to be promoted. 

Women fear for protection when on dangerous calls 

Women firefighters explained to the reporting team that on occasions when called out to a dangerous incident, there was often a thought in the back of the mind that not all of the men would have their backs, which obviously puts them in a hugely precarious situation.

An unnamed female firefighter told the review that the threshold for bullying is so high “you would have to gouge someone’s eyes out to get sacked”, adding that: “Everything else is seen as just normal banter.” There was also mention of uniforms being urinated on and men keeping diaries of when they suspected women were on a period.

Reports author offers damning conclusion

In his conclusion, Mr Afzal confirmed that there were dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women found and that the barriers faced by people of colour spoke loudly. He spoke of how it was clear that people of colour were being driven out of the brigade and that there was evidence that talented people, committed to public service, were being lost as a result.

He then went on to draw a distinction with similar problems experienced by the Metropolitan Police, who were put “on notice” earlier this year after evidence emerged of sexist, racist and homophobic behaviour among some of its officers. “Where there has been flagrant examples of police officers misusing power and allowing prejudice to shape their actions, we did not find the same level of operational bigotry.” he said.

He added that it was obvious that culture begins at the top, so it is vital that those running the organisation are visibly committed to culture change. Just setting up an internal programme to deliver change will not be enough he said, the commissioner would need to lead it himself, for it to have any credibility. He finished by saying: “This review has to be a turning point, not just a talking point, because everyone who works for the emergency services should be afforded dignity at work; that is the very least they are owed.”

The report, which makes 23 recommendations, is based on the experiences of hundreds of staff members.

Commissioner commits to supporting recommendations

The review was established by the London Fire Commissioner, Andy Roe, who said in response that there was no place for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the brigade and starting immediately, it will be completely clear to all staff what behaviour is not acceptable and what the consequences will be.

He added that he would be fully accountable for improving the culture and would be fully accepting in all of the 23 recommendations the report made. “I am deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused; today is a very sobering day”, were his closing words.

Mayor promises to oversee changes

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the details in the report were “abhorrent” and said the findings of Mr Afzal review “must be nothing short of a watershed moment for the London Fire Brigade.” He went on to say that Londoners, including firefighters and other staff, had been let down by those who should have supported them, and as a consequence they had every right to be angry.

He was, he said, fully supportive of the fire commissioner, Andy Roe, in his commitment to act upon all the recommendations with urgency, to rebuild public trust. He added that he confident that Mr Roe recognises the scale of the problems and is the right person to lead the “deep-rooted reform needed of the culture and systems within the brigade”.

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