The independent culture review of London Fire Brigade (LFB), led by Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor for the North West, has accounts ranging from women being groped to people having their helmets filled with urine. It reveals incidents such as a black firefighter who was subject to racist bullying which culminated in someone putting a mock noose above his locker.
The review also refers to a Muslim firefighter, bullied because of his faith, who had bacon put in his sandwich by his colleagues. Over a period of 10 months, a seven-strong team led by Mr Afzal gathered evidence of what people experienced in their working environment and the wider culture that supported this.
A 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: “Everything else is seen as banter.” She said she tells her female friends not to let male firefighters into their homes to check smoke alarms because she says they go through women’s drawers looking for underwear and sex toys.
What did the review’s conclusion say?
In his conclusion, Mr Afzal said: “My review found evidence that supports a finding that LFB is institutionally misogynist and racist. We found dangerous levels of ingrained prejudice against women and the barriers faced by people of colour spoke for themselves.
“Not only were they more likely to be subject to disciplinary action, less likely to be promoted and largely unrepresented at senior levels, but they were also frequently the target of racist abuse. We also saw examples of how this was driving some people of colour out of the brigade and there was evidence that talented people, committed to public service, were being lost as a result.”
Review puts other fire brigades “on notice”
Mr Afzal said he wished to draw an important distinction with similar problems experienced by the Metropolitan Police. “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.
Mr Afzal said other brigades should take note, writing in his conclusion: “The exposure of prejudice in the workplace at one of the world’s largest firefighting and rescue organisations should put other brigades on notice. “Because while London’s public services are very much in the spotlight at the moment, I have no doubt that similar cultural problems exist in other fire brigades across the country.”
Mr Afzal added: “Culture begins at the top – and it has to be said that the commissioner is seen as part of the solution, but considered by many to be an isolated figure who is not wholly supported by those around him. It will be important for his new directors’ team to be visibly committed to culture change, and supporting the commissioner in his mission.
“It will not be enough to set up an internal programme to deliver change, but the commissioner needs to lead it himself for it to have credibility. It needs to be properly resourced and supported. LFB is an organisation dedicated and committed to protecting people and supporting them when they need help the most.
“But it needs to do more to protect its own people and give them the help they need to experience dignity in the workplace and be able to thrive in a job they love.” The report, which makes 23 recommendations, is based on the experiences of hundreds of staff members.
Why was review launched?
The review was established by the London Fire Commissioner, Andy Roe, in response to the death of firefighter Jaden Francois-Esprit, who took his own life in August 2020. His family were concerned that he had been bullied because of his race, the report said.
In his conclusion, Mr Afzal said: “Unless a toxic culture that allows bullying and abuse to be normalised is tackled then, I fear that, like Jaden, other firefighters will tragically take their lives. This review has to be a turning point, not just a talking point. Everyone who works for the emergency services should be afforded dignity at work. That is the very least they are owed.”
Mr Roe said: “Today is a very sobering day. There is no place for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the brigade and from today it will be completely clear to all staff what behaviour isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be. I am deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused. I will be fully accountable for improving our culture and I fully accept all of the 23 recommendations.”
How has London Fire Brigade reacted?
The London Fire Brigade’s commissioner has accepted the organisation is institutionally racist and misogynist as he vowed change. Andy Roe told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was “horrified” to read the damning report into his brigade, adding: “I think that there will be many of my staff, decent dedicated public servants, that will be equally horrified. Yeah, heartbroken really.”
Asked if he agrees with the review’s finding the brigade is institutionally misogynist and racist, he said: “I think when 2,000 of your staff have written that story you can’t deny any of it. I accept the report in full, I accept all the recommendations. There will be change and the change starts now.”
He insisted the public can trust his brigade because no evidence was found of “operational bigotry”, meaning no “discrimination in the way we conduct our response”. “In terms of our response, when a member of the public calls 999 are they going to get a response that turns out in a way that is entirely equal and fair regardless of who they are? Yes, I’m confident that we do that,” he said.
What does institutionally misogynist and racist mean?
Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, is a form of racism that is embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or an organization. It also similar for institutional misogyny.