To consider a report on feedback from the HMICFRS Inspection.
Mark Preece, Chief Fire Officer (CFO), presented the report on feedback from the HMICFRS inspection, which took place in September and October 2021.
Members understood that the inspection was focused on three questions: how effective was the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from the risk of fire and other risks; how efficient was the fire and rescue service at keeping people safe and secure from the risk of fire and other risks; and how well did the fire and rescue service look after its people?
Members were reminded that Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service (GFRS) had been notified in January 2022 of two Causes of Concern identified during the inspection. These related to GFRS having not done enough since the last inspection to embed its values and associated behaviours, and promote a positive workplace culture; and GFRS having not done enough since the last inspection to improve understanding of the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and to remove barriers to establishing EDI in the service.
Members were informed that since receiving the notification, GFRS had worked collaboratively with Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) to develop an Improvement Plan, which was signed off by HMICFRS on 11 March 2022.
Members noted that GCC had committed a further £2million of funding to GFRS, which would be used to increase capacity by funding 28 new permanent posts.
Mark Preece informed the Committee that GFRS had been placed into an enhanced monitoring process in May 2022, which would provide additional scrutiny and support, and that on 27 July 2022, HMICFRS published its final report on GFRS.
Members understood that in terms of effectiveness, GFRS had been graded requires improvement. In terms of efficiency, GFRS had been graded requires improvement. In terms of people, GFRS had been graded inadequate.
The CFO expressed disappointment that the grading for GFRS had deteriorated since the last inspection. He explained that in response to the feedback from HMICFRS, GFRS had worked collaboratively to produce a detailed improvement plan to address the issues which had been raised, and which would be presented to Cabinet at its meeting on 21 September 2022 for approval.
Members were also informed that the Community Safety Improvement Board had been re-established, which would be chaired by the GCC Deputy Chief Executive, to monitor progress against the Improvement Plan. Additionally, GFRS had engaged with an external provider which specialised in public sector cultural intelligence and change, as well as with the Principal Officer Team at West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, which had been through a similar improvement journey.
Members noted that HMICFRS would be revisiting GFRS in autumn 2022 to review progress against the Improvement Plan for the two Causes of Concern.
The Committee discussed the feedback on the HMICFRS inspection and asked questions of the CFO for clarification, considering each of the three areas of effectiveness, efficiency and people in turn.
Focusing initially on effectiveness, one member sought clarification on what was meant by the enhanced monitoring process. They also asked the Cabinet Member for Fire, Community Safety and Libraries for their thoughts as to whether the HMICFRS report fairly reflected the inspection.
In response, the Cabinet Member explained that it was difficult to challenge HMICFRS and therefore they had to accept what had been written and move forward with it. He added that should GFRS receive an inspection report going forward that he and the CFO felt was not balanced, he would have to consider challenging HMICFRS. However, currently, GFRS needed to accept the inspection result and make positive steps to address the issues raised so that when the Service was re-inspected in 2023, progress could be clearly identified.
The CFO explained for context that since the inspection in 2019, GFRS has been dealing with 120 audit recommendations which had affected the capacity of officers. The Service had also had to work through a challenging pandemic, which had resulted in the Service being unable to address some of the previous recommendations from HMICFRS.
In response to a query, it was understood that the Improvement Board would take place every 6 weeks and the meetings would be hybrid.
One member expressed the view that the service provided to local communities by GFRS, in the practical sense, was exemplary. They queried whether the criticism by HMICFRS was of the management of GFRS rather than of the service provided.
In response, the CFO explained that broadly the issues lay with implementing systems and processes, and with the culture and behaviour of individuals within the Service.
One member expressed the view that GFRS had not responded quickly and effectively enough to the previous inspection report. They added that the feedback relating to the culture of the Service was worrying, and queried the timescale for addressing the issues.
The CFO agreed that having the right culture within the Service was paramount. He also recognised the importance of monitoring progress against the Improvement Plan.
One member asked about staff recruitment to address the issues. In response, the CFO explained that all areas of GFRS business would be increasing in capacity and that back office functions would be strengthened. Additionally, an EDI Manager post had been established to provide challenge and perspective.
Several members commented that the Committee should have received official notification that the inspection report had been published.
One member asked about the concern raised in the report about home safety checks. The CFO responded that he felt the report was conflicted in terms of the performance relating to home safety visits, as the report recognised that GFRS was identifying the most vulnerable when carrying out their safe and well checks.
One member asked whether the Service had engaged with staff on culture. It was explained, in response, that GFRS had engaged with focus groups and representative bodies on the issue.
The CFO, following a question about implementing the recommendations from the Grenfell inquiry, explained that GFRS has completed the required actions, including inspecting buildings and providing training to staff.
The Committee turned its focus to discuss the HMICFRS feedback relating to efficiency.
In response to a query, it was understood that the Improvement Plan encompassed actions to address feedback from both the 2019 and 2021 inspections.
One member queried why this scrutiny committee was not consulted with during the inspection, and whether HMICFRS would engage with members during their re-visit.
Clarification was sought regarding the comment in the report that GFRS’s service budget and staffing plans were not clearly aligned to its policies and priorities.
The CFO explained that the fire cover review would enable the Service to develop its strategies and to ensure it was providing the right resources in the right places.
In response to a query relating to GFRS’s ICT plan, the CFO explained that whilst the strategy was not up to date, they had robust procedures to provide cyber security.
One member commented that consideration needed to be given to ensure that next year’s GFRS budget was sufficient to address its priorities.
Another member queried whether GFRS had the capacity to cover new housing developments within the County.
The CFO informed the Committee that an external company was being commissioned to carry out the fire cover review, which would look at the current risk and projections.
Finally, the Committee considered the HMICFRS feedback relating to people.
One member asked for clarification regarding the comment in the report about a lack of senior leader visibility.
The Lead Cabinet Member explained that he had visited every fire station since becoming cabinet member in 2018, and that he was currently a third of the way through another full round of visits, during which he had the opportunity to speak to staff about the issues they were facing.
One member queried whether staff would be willing to open up to a politician.
In response, the Cabinet Member countered that staff recognised his past experience working within the Service, and that therefore they were open with him. Staff were also aware that he would pass on any concerns where appropriate to the CFO and senior leadership team.
The CFO added that a focus group had been established for staff to provide honest feedback, and that senior leaders tried to appear approachable. However, it would take time to build that level of trust with staff.
Clarification was sought regarding the criticism on diversity within the inspection report, given that GFRS had recruited female firefighters above the average proportion for England.
The CFO recognised the progress made by GFRS to recruit female firefighters, adding that he felt the report had not given enough recognition to the attempts to recruit from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, he also acknowledged that more needed to be done to recruit and develop staff within this area.
The Committee requested to receive a briefing note or a copy of the minutes (whichever was the most appropriate) for every two meetings of the Improvement Board.
The Committee also requested to invite the Chair of the Improvement Board to attend a meeting of the Committee to present on progress against the Improvement Plan.
It was suggested that an item be included in the Committee work plan for members to receive feedback on the HMICFRS re-visit which would be taking place in autumn 2022. The Chair of the Committee also queried whether they could be included as part of the informal feedback session on the HMICFRS re-visit.
A copy of the Improvement Plan would be circulated with the Committee following its approval by Cabinet.