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There is ‘no evidence’ of the clear leadership needed to change the service, Hannah Blythyn told the Senedd
By Adrian Browne
BBC Wales political reporter

A fire service found to have a culture of sexual harassment and misogyny will be taken over by the Welsh government.

Minister Hannah Blythyn said, without action, management failings at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service could “put lives at risk”.

In a highly critical intervention, she suggested the service was uninterested in better ways of fighting house fires.

Four government-appointed commissioners will take over the powers of the South Wales Fire and Rescue Authority.

Ms Blythyn said the commissioners would be able to restructure and reform its management.

The deputy minister for social partnership said their job would be to ensure a “wholesale change in processes, values and culture”.

Her move was welcomed by Welsh Women’s Aid

Last month, Fenella Morris KC’s report concluded that south Wales fire service bosses had tolerated sexual harassment and domestic abuse outside work.

Allegations of sexism and abusive behaviour towards staff had prompted the investigation, which found “serious deficiencies in the service” after surveying more than 450 staff.

The report concluded the service “tolerates” firefighters posting sexualised images in their uniform on adult platform OnlyFans.

After the findings were published Chief Fire Officer, Huw Jakeway, apologised and will be stepping down.

Under the changes announced by Ms Blythyn on Tuesday, the commissioners replace the South Wales Fire and Rescue Authority and its 24 members.

The authority is composed of councillors from the region’s 10 local authorities.

She named the commissioners as:

Baroness Wilcox – former leader of Newport council
Kirsty Williams – ex-education minister and Liberal Democrat Brecon and Radnor MS
Vij Randeniya – previously West Midlands chief fire officer
Carl Foulkes – former North Wales Police chief constable

In a statement to the Senedd, Ms Blythyn said: “I do not have confidence that the service has the internal capacity or capability to oversee its own recovery.

“Management at all levels, up to and including the highest, has been implicated in the identified failings.

“They cannot be both the problem and the solution.

“And the chief fire officer’s stated intention to retire is clearly insufficient to stimulate the wholesale change in processes, values and culture which will be necessary.”

The minister accused the service of doing ‘nothing meaningful’ to reduce false alarms

The minister said “clear and committed leadership” was need to “drive through change”, and she saw “no evidence of that” at present.

“I am also seriously concerned that these failings jeopardise the service’s ability to function safely and effectively.”

“The lack of proper management control and tolerance of bad practice that the report identified has wider ramifications, beyond issues of misconduct and discrimination.

“That is unacceptable in any public service, especially one charged with protecting people from serious harm.”

‘Worst performer in Wales’

The minister told the Senedd that many recommendations by the Welsh government’s chief fire and rescue adviser on learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire and firefighter training “had been rejected out of hand”.

She said: “Such a response would suggest the organisation is uninterested in better ways of fighting house fires, or minimising the risk of fatigue, or ensuring that firefighters have the skills they need.”

Ms Blythyn also accused the south Wales service of doing “nothing meaningful” to tackle false fire alarms since the Welsh government called for action on the matter in 2016.

“The number of false alarms it attends has risen consistently in recent years,” she said.

“It is clearly the worst performer in Wales, and among a group of broadly comparable FRSs [fire and rescue services] in Wales and England.”

This reflected “the same management insularity and tolerance of bad practice identified in the review”, she told the Senedd.

“It has not just led to staff misconduct and discrimination – it is also affecting service quality and efficiency, and the safety of firefighters, and we must act to address that.”

The minister said the commissioners “will have full powers to restructure and reform service management and instil a positive, non-discriminatory culture”.

She added that the four appointees would remain in post “until the work is finished, and until South Wales Fire and Rescue Service is demonstrably an inclusive and welcoming workplace for all”.

No timescale has been put on the commissioners’ work, but in her report Fenella Morris suggested it could take around 18 months for her recommendations to be implemented.

The move was welcomed by Welsh Women’s Aid, which praised the government’s “commitment to ensuring accountability and safeguarding within essential public services which exist to protect all of our communities”.

In a statement, the charity added: “It is imperative that survivors are supported, perpetrators are held accountable, and robust systems are implemented to prevent such abuses from occurring in the future.”

‘Unsavoury and harmful’

In the Senedd the Welsh Conservatives’ Joel James said it was “overwhelmingly clear” that the management of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service “are the ones who have been instrumental in allowing this unsavoury and harmful culture to fester within the fire service”.

But he said that unless the deputy minister took action “to redesign disciplinary procedures and introduce new methods of reconciling poor behaviour early on then you risk that very poor culture identified not being changed at all”.

“There’s a real big risk here that we’ve had a well thought through approach from Welsh government that that is sensitive to the good and positive aspects of working in South Wales Fire and Rescue, and there are many, we will see more fire service men and women leaving”.

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