Posted: Tue 23rd Apr 2024

Wales’ fire authorities lack accountability amid harassment allegations, Senedd hears

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Wales’ fire and rescue authorities are ill-equipped to hold services to account amid allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, a committee heard.

Julie James, the newly appointed local government secretary, gave evidence to a Senedd inquiry on the governance of fire and rescue services in Wales.

Ms James, who has only been in post for one working week, told the equality committee she is still getting to grips with her new brief which also includes housing and planning.

She raised concerns about the size of Wales’ three fire and rescue authorities, which have between 24 and 28 members and generally drawn from council backbenches.

By comparison, West Midlands fire and rescue authority has 15 members and serves a population that is slightly less than the whole of Wales.

‘Bullying’

Ms James said: “I suspect, strongly, that what we are looking at here is a governance model that isn’t really well equipped to hold a specialist service to account.”

Jenny Rathbone questioned why a Wales-wide culture review was only initiated in March – more than a year after reports of sexual harassment and bullying first emerged.

Ms James told the committee chair the Welsh Government was waiting for the outcome of Fenella Morris KC’s report on the “horrific” culture of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

Dan Stephens, fire and rescue adviser and inspector for Wales, said he conducted a review in March 2023, looking back at five years of disciplinary cases across the three services.

Mr Stephens told committee members the review found a more consistent approach to disciplinary matters in North and Mid and West Wales.

‘Exonerated’

Ms James said four commissioners, appointed by her predecessor, Hannah Blythyn, to take over the South Wales service, have replaced managers implicated in the failings.

Pressed about concerns around Stuart Millington’s appointment as interim chief fire officer, she said the commissioners were aware of a complaint made about him in 2023.

She told the committee: “That had been subject to a full external investigation which concluded there was no disciplinary case to answer.”

Following his appointment by commissioners, the Fire Brigades Union passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Millington amid accusations of harassment and discrimination.

Ms James, who was responsible for fire and rescue services three years ago in a previous stint as local government secretary, said the matter is now subject to employment tribunal.

‘Diversity’

Plaid Cymru’s Sioned Williams disputed the local government secretary’s assertion that Mr Millington was fully exonerated, suggesting aspects of the grievance were upheld

Ms James said: “We will have to see how the employment tribunal comes out.”

She added that appointments should be made on merit but warned: “I do think the fact we keep appointing men is one of the issues.

“I’m going to insist there is a female in that management structure … because I think all services that have single-sex teams end up in places where we don’t want them to be.

“We all know diversity of voices at a decision-making point leads to better decisions.”

Responding to Jane Dodds’ call for radical reform, Ms James told the Lib Dem the current model does not particularly work but she has not yet formed a view on its replacement.

‘Ruinous’

Vowing to consult widely, the local government secretary said fire and rescue authorities, which were established in 1995, are not fit for purpose.

Ms James would not commit to a timeline for replacing “sub-optimal” fire authorities, which resisted reform in 2018, but she stressed: “This isn’t a long-grass scenario.”

She said: “I do think we’re going to have to come up with a governance model that looks a bit more 21st century than the one we currently have.”

Ms James told the meeting on April 22 that the legislative programme for the next two years is crammed, so she would look at what can be done within existing legal structures.

But she warned reconfiguration can be ruinous: “The actual process is awful, so you have to weigh up the outcome with the process…. Quite often the process isn’t worth the outcome.”

By Chris Haines, ICNN Senedd reporter

 



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