The Home Office is facing demands from opposition MPs for a national inquiry into the culture of the UK’s fire services, as new details emerged from a damning report on London’s brigades that revealed widespread misogyny and racism.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats said the inquiry was necessary after the government overlooked previous warnings that fire brigades across the country were riven with bullying.
Previously unpublished testimony from female firefighters shows that one claimed to have been regularly sexually harassed after complaining about her male colleague, who she said would show colleagues footage of himself having sex, while another said she was driven to using antidepressants after decades of physical and mental bullying.
The disturbing disclosures in a report conducted by Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor, included that female firefighters had been groped and beaten. Some male firefighters who visited women’s homes for safety visits would go through drawers looking for underwear and sex toys, a female firefighter told the report.
In the Commons on Monday, the shadow Home Office minister Sarah Jones said: “Will the minister immediately commission a fundamental review of national standards and culture in our fire service? Will he agree now to publish national statistics on misconduct? And will he today commit to national professional standards?”
Munira Wilson, the Lib Dem MP for Twickenham, asked the government to launch a national inquiry because “the public’s confidence has been shaken”.
Chris Philp, the Home Office minister, responded by saying he would raise with the appropriate body, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services, whether it could look at the culture of fire services across the UK.
“She [Jones] asked about issues outside of the London fire brigade and I agree that those do need attention, and I will be discussing with Her [sic] Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services what work they can do, to look at behavioural and cultural issues such as these across the whole country,” he said.
Testimony handed to the Afzal inquiry included claims from a female firefighter of 20 years’ experience that she was harassed and stalked after complaining about a colleague who would show footage of himself having sex.
“One firefighter in particular used to show the watch videos on his phone of him having sex with women. I ignored it for a long time and then finally had a chat with my sub officer,” she said. “This man knew my mobile number and I used to get anonymous video calls from a man with an erection saying to me ‘you want this don’t you’, calling me by my name.
“This happened many times and my husband witnessed it. I decided to tell this man that I’d changed my phone number … then the obscenities stopped.”
Another female firefighter of 10 years’ experience said that while all firefighters faced humiliating initiation rituals, they never seemed to end for women. “It’s a lot worse as a woman. You’re told you only got the job because you’re a woman. That you’re there just to fill a quota and you’re useless. Then they drive over your shoes, throw your kit in the bin and grope you on hoist training,” she said.
“One guy kept telling me I was a useless driver and tried to drag me out of the seat while I was reversing. I’ve been punched, slapped and had my hair pulled too. Before long I was on antidepressants.”
She also told investigators: “If you complain about bullying, it goes nowhere. I did once and my crew manager lied and said he’d seen nothing. It’s an incredibly laddish culture and diversity isn’t valued at all. Lots of farting, burping and sexist jokes. And plenty of racism. People constantly going on about ‘Muzzers’. We had terrorism training and my watch kept pointing out of the window at brown people. ‘There’s one, there’s one and another,’ they kept saying.”