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"Male-Dominated" Fire and Rescue Service Set To Face MPs' Scrutiny

Only around 9 per cent of firefighters in England are women (Alamy)

4 min read

Labour MP and committee chair Diana Johnson has said “completely inappropriate” behaviour in the “male-dominated” fire and rescue services requires urgent investigation, as an inquiry is due to begin in Parliament this week.

The Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Johnson, will hear evidence on Tuesday from a range of fire and rescue professionals, including the Director at Women in the Fire Service. The inquiry will look into reports of misogyny, homophobia and the wider culture across fire and rescue services, starting just a few days before International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March.

“There are some really harrowing stories about the culture in the Fire and Rescue Service,” Johnson told PoliticsHome.

“We've certainly seen some of the behaviours that have been identified within the police forces… the use of social media, WhatsApp groups, blatant misogyny, bullying, the failing of managers to properly manage and supervise staff and to allow behaviours to develop which are completely inappropriate. 

“I think there is probably some crossover [with the police]… and I think the fire service is probably even more male dominated. There's probably a very male culture.”

Although the number of female firefighters has slowly increased over the years, only 8.7 per cent of firefighters in England were women at the end of March 2023. In comparison, while police forces face similar accusations of being “male-dominated”, the percentage of women police officers in England in March 2023 was 37 per cent.

Johnson suggested this was part of the reason why there was an issue with the culture across the emergency services.

“We want to have a police force that reflects the society we live in and we need to have women police officers in there, absolutely,” she said.

“But equally, we need to have black police officers, police officers from all sorts of communities. So I think you can't just leave it to the women.”

Last week, the first part of a report into the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer was published, prompting the home secretary to announce that police officers charged with certain criminal offences will be automatically suspended. The report found that former Met Police officer Wayne Couzens, who abducted, raped and murdered Everard in 2021, should never have been a police officer.

“I think that we need to have some standardised things that we expect in terms of recruitment and vetting,” Johnson said, describing how her committee had heard evidence where officers had been convicted of public indecency but had then continued serving in the police. The MP said that while she hoped Mark Rowley, the Met Commissioner, would “turn that ship around”, these issues were not just in the Met Police but “in police forces up and down the country”.

Johnson said she hoped that if Labour get into government at the next general election, they would bring forward measures to tackle low-level sexual offences such as flashing or acts of voyeurism.

“We've been concerned that those can be a bit of a red flag, that behaviour can escalate into something much worse, and we know with Wayne Couzens, he had been exposing himself several times before he went to murder Sarah Everard,” she said.

In Johnson’s own constituency of Kingston upon Hull North, the murderer of 21-year-old student Libby Squire had been prowling the streets of the student area of the city and exposing himself. Squire’s mother called for tougher sentences for crimes such as voyeurism while speaking to the Home Affairs Committee last month.

“It didn't get reported because people thought the police wouldn't take it seriously,” Johnson said.

“[The committee] has just had a session on [low-level sexual offences], to look at what more could be done with the police and the courts, encouraging people to report.”

The MP also said she hoped a Labour government would deliver on its proposal to make spiking a specific criminal offence and give the area more focus and more spending.

Johnson, alongside multiple other politicians, recognises that the issue of violence against women and girls also extends to Parliament itself. 

She has therefore criticised the decision for a Commons vote on plans to ban MPs accused of violent or sexual offences to be postponed, originally due to take place on Monday. Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt said that given the context of a recent chaotic debate on the war in Gaza, there would be a "better time" for the debate to occur.

“In the context of the increase in offences of sexual violence against women and girls, the low prosecution rates and horrendous cases such as the Sarah Everard murder, it sends all the wrong signals if the Government is backing off from any action to make the seat of our democracy a safe workplace for women,” Johnson said.

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