At the end of March 2022, Sir Thomas Winsor will step down as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. Political Editor Catherine Levin spoke to him about his final State of Fire report and what he plans to do next
Sir Thomas describes the first part of State of Fire as an essay where he can set out his broad view on the Fire and Rescue Service. He says it is not about what has happened in the preceding 12 months, rather it is a longer-term overview of progress – or the lack of it. It is a chance to get beyond the counting and the measuring and really think about what improvement means.
He is keen to point out that he is not a regulator – he was, a long time ago, for the railways but for the last ten or so years, he has shone a light first on police and more recently on the Fire and Rescue Service. He is a lawyer by profession (not a trade, as he was quick to correct during the interview) and has a lawyer’s careful, meticulous approach that brings to mind the forensic unpicking of the evidence by the legal counsel at the Grenfell Inquiry.
It is good to know that the inspection of fire and rescue services is carried out in this way; it provides a reassurance even if the outcomes are hard to read for those on the front line.
There are limitations to what an inspector can do. Sir Thomas makes recommendations and as he presents State of Fire to Home Secretary Priti Patel, she can see them and note that yet again they have not been implemented and yet again the dates have been moved back. Whether that bothers the Home Secretary is hard to know, but Sir Thomas has his own views.
“An inspectorate can only say what ought to happen. It is for others to decide what to do with what we have said ought to be done.” He expands on this point. “If they want to slow pedal, if they want to disregard a recommendation because they think it is not affordable or the right thing to do, that is the way the legislative scheme works at the moment.”
He does not complain about this and is rather matter-of-fact about it all; he is certainly not looking for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) to have more powers.
At the start and end of the interview the topic of the Fire Reform White Paper comes up. He is frustrated that it has not been published already and in State of Fire he reinforces the point about progress: ‘While improvements have been made at local and national levels, including in recent reforms, much more needs to be done. Policymakers and legislators need to raise the priority of fire reform considerably. The service, its staff and the public deserve no less’.
One of the reasons why the white paper has not yet been published may be down to something as simple as capacity. It takes a lot of time to think through policy change and express it in a way that allows for broad, meaningful consultation. With finite civil service and ministerial time and the huge pressure on the Home Office and the Department for Levelling up to sort out the building safety crisis, it is likely that there simply is not enough collective headspace to think through a Fire Reform White Paper.
Asked about this, Sir Thomas agrees, and provides some insight into the process: “I think that’s partly the case, the political leadership only has so much capacity to deal with lots of things at the same time. I am optimistic that the Fire Reform White Paper will be very reforming, more than the pessimists may fear. It is imminent and the appetite of the Fire Minister is undiminished. It needs top-cover political support; Number 10, more so now than even under Gordon Brown, is much more interventionist in policy matters. So, getting things approved just takes longer.”
There is already substantial reform taking place through the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and the Fire Standards Board, with both organisations getting plenty of mentions in State of Fire. The NFCC gets three mentions in the recommendations and clearly a lot is riding on them delivering improvements at a national level. The NFCC looks like an arm of the Home Office, a quasi-non-departmental public body without the pain for the Home Office to administer.
Sir Thomas disagrees with this characterisation: “I think to call the NFCC an arm of the Home Office is putting it too high. At the end of the day, the NFCC, like the NPCC must be funded from somewhere. Private donations aren’t available, so it has to be taxpayers’ money, either from central or local government.”
He is right about funding, but as newly installed HMI and former NFCC Chair Roy Wilsher explains during the interview with Sir Tom, single year settlements are not helpful and create uncertainty for those employed and for the delivery of the reform that is required. Sir Thomas says that the NFCC is an essential body: “But you’re right, if they were to remove the funding, they would be high and dry.”
One thing that is sure to upset any reform is talk about removing the right to strike from firefighters. Asked his thoughts on the FBU’s reaction to its inclusion in State of Fire, he says: “I don’t have a track record of attacking workers. I have no idea where they got that from.” He went on to elaborate and reveals that he had once been a long-standing member of the Labour Party until he ‘fell out’ with Tony Blair.
He provides some insight on why he urged policy makers and others to consider removing the right of firefighters to strike.
“I don’t detect a strong public appetite from the chiefs for the right to strike because that is a whole world of pain in terms of a political fight. Nor do I detect any public appetite of government or parliament to do so, for the same reason. I do think this is something that should be given consideration. That’s not the same as saying the right to strike must be abolished. It’s not an attack on workers’ rights. It would have to be done in the same way as it was done for the police (in 1919), there would have to be a payment and other compensating measures.”
Comparisons with the police are interesting when looking back at how fire ended up as part of an enlarged inspectorate in 2017. Bringing fire back into the Home Office when Theresa May was Home Secretary marked the start of a policy that brought police and fire closer together. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 provided the legal basis for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to take on inspection of fire and led to the creation the role of police fire and crime commissioner.
There has been a bit of a hiatus since then. The Fire Reform White Paper may show that the government wants to reinvigorate the policy so that the existing four PFCCs are joined by many more. The government will need to be willing to go through the pain of rationalising the many different models of fire governance that already exist across England – and that, like the points made by Sir Thomas above, needs time and capacity to make it work.
Sir Thomas thinks that the policy objective to bring police and fire closer together was a good one, and that it made perfect sense to bring the inspection of them together as well, adding that it would have been a waste of money to set up a separate HMI for fire.
He speaks with some pride when he shares his thoughts on fire coming under his wing: “Parliament would not have given us fire if we were doing a bad job with police. That was quite a boost to our morale as well as an enormous enlargement of our workload.” He reveals that HMICFRS received no additional remuneration and having had a pay review, they were told their pay should be reduced. That sounds tough for most of the staff working for him, but it is hard to be sympathetic about the HMI themselves given the size of their salaries.
HMICFRS has only been around since 2017, of course, so perhaps it is too early to say if the combined inspectorate is successful. Sir Thomas says they have made a good start: “I am satisfied that the inspectorate my successor will take over is in great shape. We’ve got a really high quality, committed staff. The inspectorate of 2022 is quite different to the one I took over in 2012.”
He provides some thoughts on how the current inspection model will continue to evolve. “It’s a journey and we’re not there yet. We don’t have seconded police officers inspecting police and vice versa. One day that will happen because the methodology of inspection will have been sufficiently integrated that it will be possible, but only possible to an extent because they are different.”
Given all this, why is he leaving? He says there is life in the old dog yet but at the same time some people think he has stayed too long. And indeed, he has served the longest tenure of any HMI as well as being the first to occupy the post without a police background. There is no maximum period in the legislation, but he is going because his term of office has expired. “Nine and a half years is long enough to do any one job,” he remarks.
His last day of office is March 31 and, following a well-established tradition, he will be leaving a note to his successor on his desk. He did the same when he left the rail regulator – he was rather pleased when journalist Matthew Parris got hold of it and reported on it for The Times. While he has not written it yet, he says that if he had one word to offer his successor it would be ‘courage’. That is remarkably telling about him and about the post of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.
Ending with the inevitable question about what he will do next, he is hugely reluctant to be drawn on any speculation that he might be elevated to the House of Lords. “The House of Lords is stuffed full of former coppers; they don’t need another one from the world of policing.” Given his comments about Tony Blair earlier in the interview, he was adamant he would not sit as a Labour peer in any case.
Having recently passed professional exams to be an international commercial arbitrator, it looks like Sir Thomas will not be retiring any time yet and will be putting those years of inspecting to good use elsewhere. Good luck to him.