Report slams failings in leadership of Avon Fire Service

A culture of bullying, defensiveness and backdoor pay-outs has been revealed by a damning report into Avon Fire and Rescue Service.

The investigation calls for the resignation of senior bosses after identifying a series of systematic failings that include a lack of transparency, cover-up operations, salary boosts for high-ranking officers and an atmosphere of distrust and fear.

“Poor decisions that significantly benefited individuals were made following insufficient scrutiny by members,” concludes independent inspector Dr Craig Baker, who conducted the report at the request of the Home Office.

He criticises the service’s “serious issues with the equality and diversity of its workforce,” and the poor treatment of staff – in particular whistle blowers, who reported being harassed and bullied after lodging complaints.

Newly appointed chair Donald Davies admits the report makes difficult reading as he vows to instigate change

Responding to the report, Donald Davies, the newly appointed chair of Avon Fire Authority, admitted it makes for difficult reading as he promised to learn from past mistakes and take action to implement improvements and ensure there is greater scrutiny.

One of the concerns outlined in the report centres around the retirement and reemployment of chief fire officer Kevin Pearson.

Chief fire officer Kevin Pearson retired, only to be reemployed again the following day.

Pearson retired in September 2009, only to be re-employed the following day and his pension was abated.

Two years later, a 22 per cent reduction in his pay was agreed as a result of austerity measures, but he was, by then, able to draw his pension to top up his earnings to their original sum, leading Baker to describe it as an “illusory sacrifice.”

He went on to have his salary inflated once more, going from £132,310 to £142,020. Other senior officers also received pay rises above inflation.

The report highlights the case of two deputy chief fire officers, both of whom benefitted from £25,000 uplifts in salary just a little over 12 months prior to their retirement.

This raised concerns that the increases were sanctioned with the express purposes of boosting the final salary benefits of these high-ranking officers.

In 2011, the director of human resources and people development has been off work for four months due to stress. Following a private meeting with the chief fire officer, a package was agreed which granted her a paid secondment leading on to retirement.

The service supplemented her pension by three years.

“These examples,” says Baker, “provide a strong sense that for many years the authority has been run for the benefit of its workforce – and particularly senior officers – and consideration for the community and taxpayers was secondary.”

He adds that the handling of a missing laptop “exemplified a culture of defensiveness.”

The laptop, thought to contain sensitive data about a large number of vulnerable children, went missing from the community liaison team when a member of staff went home early one day due to sickness and did not return to work for six weeks in March 2012.

Its loss was not reported through the correct procedures and, as such, its disappearance only came to light three years later when a third party reported the theft of the laptop.

While many staff interviewed for the investigation, particularly at fire fighter level, were very loyal to the service, Baker is damning of sickness levels that are above the national average and a failure to promote diversity.

He concludes: “It is now time for the leadership of the authority to be revitalised in order to drive improvements in economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”

The report does acknowledge recent improvements and welcomes a willingness of the new chair to address the systematic problems.

Praise for front line fire fighters who have not been criticised in the report (pictured with Bristol mayor Marvin Rees)

Davies said: “Mistakes have been made in the past and they cannot be ignored which is why my focus is exploring the recommendations that have been made and taking practical steps to improve.

“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.”

He stressed that the report refers to a small group of people in senior leadership roles and does not criticise any of the front line staff, who the public should continue to have ultimate faith in.