Fire chiefs told to reflect on positions as new report identifies 'serious failings of leadership'

Firefighters have been let down by senior management who may not understand the scale of problems facing the service, according to a committee of politicians.

The Senedd's equality and social justice committee's report, titled "sound the alarm", outlines a long list of concerns about the governance of fire and rescue services in Wales.

It accuses senior officials of "downplaying" bullying allegations against the controversial interim chief fire officer of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Stuart Millington. He denies the allegations.

The report also asks serious questions about how complaints are handled and suggests senior bosses may want to "reflect on their positions".

Over the last four months, ITV Cymru Wales has been investigating claims of "toxic cultures" at the services in north Wales, and Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

More than 35 whistleblowers in north Wales told us when they complained, nothing was done.

Some of those whistleblowers have now described the report's contents as "shocking but not surprising".

Since January, the equality and social justice committee has been investigating the governance of Wales' fire and rescue services.

The committee, made up of MSs from a variety of different parties, has heard evidence from a range of senior figures in Wales' fire services including Dawn Docx, the chief fire officer of North Wales Fire Service.

Reflecting on the evidence, Jenny Rathbone MS, who chairs the Senedd committee, said: "We were disturbed by how many people at the top of the current governance system didn’t seem to be aware of how serious the problem is."

Dawn Docx, chief fire officer at North Wales Fire and Rescue Service, is criticised in the report for being "evasive" while giving evidence. Credit: ITV News

'Undermine the credibility of those coming forward'

Worried staff at fire services in Wales say they feel vindicated by the findings of this new report, particularly about how their complaints were dealt with.

Speaking to ITV Cymru Wales, whistleblowers told us when they made a complaint about bad behaviour, it was never properly investigated.

The committee pointed to various occasions where fire leaders "seemed to downplay or undermine the credibility of those coming forward as 'settling scores' or waging personal vendettas".

The report points to comments made by the man responsible for oversight of North Wales Fire, Dylan Rees, as an example. In evidence to the committee, Mr Rees said: "We don't know if some of these 'complaints', in inverted commas, are historic complaints with people who are dissatisfied with something that's happened."

He added that he "disagreed completely with some of the allegations that have appeared in the press".

However, the report concluded "a lack of mutual trust" can have a silencing effect on individuals’ willingness to “raise their heads above the parapet".

"Given that some of the more serious allegations only came to light as a result of the bravery of whistleblowers, it is crucial that every effort is made to support them and staff more generally," the report said.

Interim chief appointment 'reinforces negative perceptions'

The Senedd committee heard evidence from the chief of North Wales Fire about the controversial appointment of Stuart Millington.

The former assistant chief fire officer in north Wales was promoted to run the scandal-hit south Wales service in February 2024 following a damning cultural review. However, days after his appointment, ITV Cymru Wales revealed outstanding bullying allegations against Mr Millington, which he denies.

An internal investigation into Stuart Millington found "prima facie evidence or bullying and harassment". Credit: North Wales Fire and Rescue Service

In Dawn Docx's evidence to the committee, she said she saw nothing to stop her former assistant chief from taking up the new role. This was echoed by Dylan Rees, the fire authority chair in north Wales, who said: "I didn't see that it precluded the appointment of assistant chief officer Stuart Millington."

However, the committee says a secretive investigation into the allegation against Mr Millington which was raised in the Senedd by Plaid Cymru "appears at odds with the findings of the independent investigator’s report".

This report later came to light in an employment tribunal last month, and included details of "prima facie evidence of bullying and harassment".

The committee concluded they "found the lack of clarity and the defensive, bordering on dismissive, tone of several individuals responding to these concerns troubling", adding "staff confidence in the process has been undermined".

The committee recommend that South Wales Fire and Rescue Service should bring in a new permanent chief fire officer "with skills and experiences from outside the sector in Wales into the key roles responsible for organisational culture".

Applications for the appointment of a permanent chief officer or chief executive for south Wales' service closed last month.

'Some may need to reflect on their positions'

Going further, the committee report said: "Dawn Docx, Cllr Dylan Rees, Dan Stephens and Vij Randeniya all downplayed the allegations" which had been made against the interim chief in south Wales.

Dan Stephens is the Welsh Government advisor responsible for inspecting fire services and was part of the appointment of Stuart Millington to his south Wales position.

Meanwhile, Vij Randeniya is the lead Welsh Government-appointed commissioner in charge of reforming the south Wales service and is understood to have been the person who first selected Mr Millington for the interim role. He is part of a team of four commissioners who were parachuted in to oversee the south Wales service after the fire authority was discharged.

The report continues: "This lack of candour is symptomatic of a wider cultural problem among fire and rescue leaders.

"Given the need to restore confidence, particularly with staff, some may need to reflect on their positions."

Matt Wrack, general secretary at the Fire Brigades Union, said: "This report confirms serious failings of leadership at the very top.

"Chief fire officers and senior managers have presided over a situation in which those who speak out against bullying, harassment and discrimination are silenced or victimised."

Dawn Docx declined an interview with ITV about the report's findings, but in statement said, “We welcome further discussion around the governance arrangements for fire and rescue authorities in Wales. Effective governance is crucial for delivering the best possible service to our communities, and we support further academic research to explore the benefits of different governance models.

“We’re fully committed to transparency and accountability, always striving to be as open and honest as possible. Balancing this with the confidentiality and privacy of all individuals involved is essential. It is therefore disappointing that the Committee perceived our efforts as 'downplaying' allegations."

The Chief Fire Officer of Mid and West Wales also decline the an interview, but said, ""We will now take time to consider the report and will work with our colleagues across North Wales and South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Welsh Government to understand the implications of its findings and recommendations.

“That being said, as an organisation that strives for continuous improvement, we welcome further discussion around the governance arrangements for fire and rescue authorities in Wales. We recognise effective governance is crucial for delivering the best possible service to our communities and we support further academic research to explore the benefits of different governance models.”

"We would like to reassure everyone that we are not complacent about the Service’s culture."

Baroness Debbie Wilcox, one of the south Wales commissioners, said: "We were grateful for the opportunity to engage with the committee in an open and frank way, and we note its report.

"Recommendations relating to bringing 'fresh individuals with skills and experiences from outside the sector' to the service are an integral part of our terms of reference and are already well underway.

"The committee’s conclusions and recommendations about future governance arrangements are also noted and will be helpful in our ongoing work with the cabinet secretary, stakeholders, and partners on that issue."

Julie James MS took over from Hannah Blythyn as the minister in charge of the fire service. Credit: Senedd TV

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "We will consider the findings carefully as part of a wider programme of governance reform and cultural improvement in the fire sector."

Meanwhile, the Welsh Conservative's Shadow Minister for Social Partnership, Joel James MS, said "There has been an abject failure of the Welsh Government and the Commissioners to resolve the culture issues in South Wales Fire and Rescue and this not only has consequences for the public, but for firefighters and staff as well.

“The appointment of Stuart Millington as interim Chief Fire Officer just shows how the commissioners fundamentally do not understand the concerns of firefighters and the staff of SWFRS and are not prepared to listen. This has become further damaging to the reputation of the service."

Plaid Cymru's Sioned Williams told ITV, "Stuart Millington's appointment to oversee change in South Wales Fire and Rescue, despite allegations of bullying against himself, shows that there has been a lack of oversight and understanding at all levels of governance about the need to ensure meaningful reform, and some must surely now need to consider their positions.

"We now need to see urgent and radical reform of the way Fire and Rescue services throughout Wales are run to restore the confidence of staff and the public."

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