Fire brigade leaders suspended over ‘old boys’ club’ allegations

Report into Avon service found perception that bullying and harassment was ‘endemic’

Staff interviewed for the Home Office review said the Avon authority lacked drive.

The chief fire officer of Avon fire and rescue and his deputy have been suspended in the wake of a report criticising both the service and the authority responsible for its oversight.

The Home Office report noted suggestions the fire authority was an “old boys’ club”, while Kevin Pearson, who became chief fire officer in 2001, had been “unchallenged and not held properly to account for too long”.

The report found a perception that bullying and harassment was “endemic” in the organisation and said Pearson retired in 2009, only to be re-employed a day later.

Other findings included what was labelled an “illusory sacrifice” when Pearson’s pay was cut by 22% as part of an austerity programme, which he was able to make up by drawing on his pension.

The Avon service confirmed the suspension of Pearson and deputy Lorraine Houghton, saying: “Suspension is a neutral act to protect the organisation and the individuals concerned.

“At the moment these are only allegations which will be investigated in line with disciplinary procedures and processes.”

The service will be supported by Stewart Edgar, chief fire officer of Gloucestershire fire and rescue, with help from other services in the area.

Craig Baker, who led the review, said the fire authority scrutinising the service was failing in its governance arrangements as well as its leadership and culture.

His review said: “Some interviewees commented on the degree of consensus within the authority as positive, and felt that the authority was always supportive of the service as a whole and were seeking the best for it.

“Others, however, said they considered the authority as lacking drive, and seemed largely to be ‘an old boys’ club’, with little discussion of matters of importance, and excessive concerns over minor items.

“We have been told that in most meetings there was little or no debate and rarely was there extensive debate.”

He added: “I believe lack of change amongst senior management has gone beyond the point of stability and continuity. Because key people in senior management positions have been in post for so long, legacy issues cannot be dealt with effectively.

“I conclude that it is now time for the leadership of the authority to be revitalised in order to drive improvements in economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”

Councillor Donald Davies, who became chairman of Avon fire authority last month, said the report made “difficult reading”.

He added: “The biggest frustration to me is that in the past, when our budgets were not as squeezed as they are today, money was wasted. This is money that could have been better spent and I will ensure this won’t be allowed to happen again.”

Documents from Avon fire and rescue show the chief fire officer is paid a basic annual salary of £144,854, while the deputy receives £115,883.