A whistleblower told ITV News that the Dorset and Wiltshire Fire Service had known for at least a couple of years there have been problems with the culture - Paul Brand reports
Warning: This report contains details some readers may find upsetting
One of the most senior officers at Dorset and Wiltshire Fire Service retired on full pension last year, weeks after being found to have sexually harassed female staff. ITV News has learnt that Assistant Chief Fire Officer Byron Standen was able to retire without sanction, despite an internal investigation finding him guilty of gross misconduct. The latest revelations are part of an ongoing investigation by ITV News into claims of sexual harassment and misogyny at the service.
Following ITV News’s initial report, a further whistleblower came forward to us who had given evidence in Byron Standen’s misconduct case. The man – who has worked for Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service but doesn’t wish to be identified – told us that the allegations against Mr Standen included “sexual harassment, being a sexual predator, grooming and coercion." Mr Standen has not responded to a request for comment.
When questioned by ITV News last week, the Chief Fire Officer Ben Ansell declined to comment about the behaviour of one of his former right hand men, who was third in command at the service. Mr Ansell told us at the time, “I cannot comment about any particular cases or any particular individuals for reasons of confidentiality… I simply cannot do that.” Furthermore, Mr Ansell denied at the time that his service had a problem with women, stating, "I don't accept that we have a problem, I think that we have had some challenging times and we have addressed issues."
However, following the testimony of our whistleblower and after further requests for information, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service has now confirmed to ITV News that Byron Standen was indeed found guilty of gross misconduct by an independent investigation.
The fire service has refused to provide details of exactly which of the allegations Mr Standen was found guilty of, leaving the possibility that some charges were not upheld. But they admit that in June 2022 he was able to retire early, avoiding any sanction at all.
When questioned by ITV News last week, the Chief Fire Officer declined to comment about the behaviour of one of his former right hand men.
A spokesperson for the service told us, “We can confirm that following an independent investigation that on May 22, 2022, an individual was found by a disciplinary committee on the balance of probabilities to have committed gross misconduct. The sanction for such gross misconduct was summary dismissal."
“To the frustration and disappointment of the Service, the individual had earlier already given notice of his intention to retire, and, given the length and complexities of the investigation he was able to retire before the sanction could take effect." When we asked our whistleblower what he thought of the Chief Fire Officer previously denying that the service had a problem with women, despite having been aware of Byron Standen’s case, he told us:
“I was surprised that he didn't accept there was a problem, because the organisation has known for at least a couple of years there have been problems with the culture, especially with regards to matters of a sexual nature. So I think my initial reaction when I saw it went from surprise verging into anger."
Our whistleblower alleges that it has been difficult for women to complain about harassment within the service.
"There is a culture of fear of speaking out, verging on bullying”, he told us. “Do I think that individuals in the senior leadership team are misogynists or sexual predators - apart from the case that we're speaking about? No. But as a team, they've allowed an environment to fester."
"I don't accept the bad apple analogy. Apples can go bad because there's something inherently wrong with them or because they're in an environment that makes them go bad. So there need to be questions about why these apples are going bad." Responding to the latest claims, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire Service told us, “When our Chief Fire Officer Ben Ansell met with ITV last week, he made clear that he was unable to talk about individual cases for legal reasons. However, it is also of vital importance, and indeed in the public interest, to demonstrate to the public that we treat sexual misconduct allegations with the utmost seriousness.” However, following the latest revelations there are now calls for Mr Ansell to resign.
Nazir Afzal, who conducted an investigation into misconduct at London Fire Brigade, said he found the chief fire officer's earlier dismissal worrying
Nazir Afzal, who recently conducted an independent investigation into misconduct at London Fire Brigade, told us, “The fact that he would not acknowledge or did not acknowledge when you put it to him last week that there was a toxic, misogynist culture within the service troubles me and worries me. It will undoubtedly worry the workforce and citizens of Dorset and Wiltshire."
"I can't understand how he feels - unless he's got a very good explanation - that he's fit to carry out the job of Chief Fire Officer." Separately, the White Ribbon charity, an organisation focused on preventative action geared towards men and boys, has decided to review Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service’s accreditation.
Last year the charity also stripped South Wales Fire and Rescue Service of its white ribbon accreditation following an ITV News investigation into sexual harassment and abuse of women in the organisation.
Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, said: "Every time that we scratch beneath the surface in these 'old boys networks' we learn of police and firemen marking their own homework; tons of badly behaving boys being allowed to retire with full pensions when the women they tortured gave up and left their roles decades previously as the fight just never ever stops.
"We need investigations like this to expose what is really going on otherwise we are left with statements like the chief's saying there are no issues. "
"The culture does need to change in some fire services", Home Secretary Suella Braverman told ITV News when approached for a comment
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