Speaking truth to power: FIRE talks to new Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services
Andy Cooke has taken over from Sir Thomas Winsor as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. Editor Andrew Ledgerton-Lynch talks to him about the fire reform white paper, performance management, leadership and governance.
Andy Cooke has served as a detective at every rank since joining Merseyside Police in 1985 having obtained an Honours Degree in Politics from Nottingham University. His illustrious career has seen him take charge of the ‘Matrix’ team, responsible for tackling gun and gang enabled crime as well as being in charge of the Robbery Squad and Target Operations at the Major Crime Unit.
Andy has held some of the highest risk portfolios in policing, being the national policing lead for serious organised crime and he led the creation of the UK Protected Persons Service. In 2016 he was appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside and during that time Andy led the biggest reorganisation in Merseyside Police’s 40-year history. While he was Chief, the force was graded as the highest performing metropolitan force by HMICFRS.
Andy was appointed as HM Inspector of Constabulary and HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services in April 2021 where he was the HMI for Northern England and the SRO for PEEL Inspection and on April 1 this year, Andy was appointed as HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and HM Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services.
Andy’s background and route to becoming Chief Inspector could not be more different from his predecessor, Sir Thomas Winsor, although comparisons are inevitable as he takes over as the government’s fire reform white paper is launched, fuelled by HMI recommendations.
Referring back to FIRE’s “exit” interview with Sir Tom (see FIRE February), where he said his successor would more than anything else require “courage”, I ask if that is the right word: “Any head of an independent inspectorate needs to have courage to speak, to speak truth to power. You need to show very clearly that you are independent. The particular issue for me is the fact that I was a chief constable.
“I need to show independence of policing as well as fire, as well as independence to government, as well as to PCCs and all the other interested parties very clearly in relation to it. So, it does take courage. I mean, I’m not going to blow my own trumpet, but you know I’ve never been slow to speak out when I was a chief, so the chances of me being slow to speak out now are minimal to be honest with you.
“I always put the community first, so I’m not here to keep chiefs, be they police or fire chiefs, happy or to keep governments happy. I’m here to make sure that the Fire Service and the Police Service are providing efficient and effective services and keeping the public safe, so ‘courage’ is a good way of putting it.
“Rhino skin would be another expression to use because you do get the brick bats from all sides depending on how good or bad your inspection is. Depending how much you do or not upset the government or others, you have to be able to take it on the chin. So yeah, ‘courage’ is a good word to use, and linked in with having rhino skin.”
Andy Cooke QPM DL
“It’s incumbent upon us all really, right across the whole system, to make sure that the best use is made of the white paper”
Given Andy’s experience, I ask if this helps in his approach to fire. “I’ve got 36 years before joining the inspectorate in public service as a police officer. During that time I’ve worked very closely with some exceptionally good fire officers as well. Dan Stephens (Chief Fire and Rescue Advisor and Inspector for Wales and former Merseyside Chief Fire Officer) and Phil Garrigan particularly, but not just in Merseyside and Lancashire, I’ve worked with some very good chief fire officers.
“I think my whole career has been preparation for this role, to be honest with you, because I know how organisations work around what I think is a good organisation. My force was a highly graded organisation.
“When you get outside the specialisms of what their organisation is, it’s about managing people in the best way. It’s about ensuring that you understand how to lead the organisation and you understand how to be an inclusive organisation. And you have the standards and values required both for individual organisations and how to pass those standards and values on to other organisations across the country.”
Before becoming Chief Inspector, Andy worked for 12 months in the inspectorate and spent most of that time in the north speaking to chiefs and members of fire and rescue services at all levels. “I used those 12 months very much as a source of learning time. Because I knew policing pretty well (I should do after 36 years!) it was predominantly focusing on the fire side of business and learning more about the governance models there.”
Learning about how the Fire Service “ticked and where the challenges were” and where the good practice was, Andy says he was very fortunate in that one of the best services grading wise was on the doorstep in Merseyside. Although he is quick to dismiss any accusation of bias: “There was no favouritism shown to Merseyside and its inspection, I can assure you that they were genuinely very good! So, I’ve learned quite a bit in that period. I mean, both prior to joining the inspectorate and subsequently.”
One Size Fits All?
Were there any surprises though? And how did the comparison with policing stack up?
“Both organisations struggle with the levels of diversity in them. Both organisations have very strong team approaches, or the best services have a very strong team approach. What I didn’t see in fire that I saw in policing was the politicisation, and there is a stronger industrial relations issues in the Fire Service than in policing. It was quite a different picture.”
“I don’t think there’s one size fits all necessarily for governance”
Like the best or more experienced chiefs, Andy answers the questions before I get round to interjecting. “Which is why I welcome the white paper early on operational independence. It just seemed like quite an unwieldy and slow process to get decisions made [as opposed to operating as a Chief Constable with operational independence], which was a new thing to me.
“You’ve also got different models and governance as well. You have police and fire and crime commissioners, you’ve got deputy mayors, you’ve got chairs of fire authorities, so I’ve been understanding a bit more about that.”
What is surprising given the white paper’s thrust for a single accountable representative is the new Chief Inspector’s unwillingness to follow the government’s line. “Some are very, very good, I’ve got to say. And there’s a lot of positives coming through there. Which is why I don’t think there’s one size fits all necessarily for governance. It very much depends on the individuals and the way they run things and the commitment to the public service that they’re doing.”
What else did you see that was good in the Fire Service?
“I saw some evidence of really good work with people and understanding what made people tick and how they were inclusive. I saw that unilaterally chief fire officers were seeking to do their best working in at times difficult circumstances but tackling issues head on and taking criticism on the chin, which is important.
“As long as it’s constructive criticism, as long as it’s there to help improve the services moving forward, that’s the right way to take it. That’s the way I used to take it as a police chief. If the HMI came in and said, ‘you’re not doing this very well’, I would look closely at it and do it better, do it in a different way. So that was important for me, but I think the overriding thing was that despite my previous background I’ve had a very warm welcome wherever I went, and it wasn’t a very warm welcome because you’re about to inspect me, it was genuinely warm and interested in what I was going to bring and how we could work together to improve the Fire Service.”
Greatest Show in Town
That is all very encouraging as a starting point, but in terms of the big picture stuff, I ask Andy if he walks in with objectives and timelines and a vision of what he wants to achieve and what he wants to see, or is he following the template set out previously in State of Fire?
“I think the State of Fire was a great conductor for the white paper. And I think in relation to the Fire Service at the moment, that’s probably the greatest show in town. Everyone’s very interested in how that’s going to come out, how it’s going to run through the consultations. I’m really interested to see what consultation comes back from all the various stakeholders and interested parties.
“HMI doesn’t have all the good ideas, but I think the work that Sir Tom and the team did prior to me coming in identified some good issues that, taken together, could genuinely improve the Fire Service. I’m quite upbeat in relation to it. I do hope all sides work together to make sure that we get the most out of it. I don’t think anyone would deny that there are things that need to change, both in fire and police. And it’s incumbent upon us all really, right across the whole system, to make sure that the best use is made of the white paper.”
Speaking truth to power can also include an element of praise and the Chief Inspector credits the Prime Minister and Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh in particular. “He’s pushed and pushed and pushed with this as fire is not always the top of the agenda for the government, but we’ve seen issues like Grenfell and others where, if the eye is taken off the ball, what a massive impact that can have. In fact I think the response of the Fire Service to the Grenfell issues has been first class as well, right across the country, in the work they’ve done around protection.”
There are a lot of positives, he assures and “a lot of hard work coming up in the future, a lot of opportunities for the whole system to work together to improve the service, both for people within the service and for the public.”
The inspectorate has come in for some criticism for avoiding governance in the initial rounds of inspections. Having mentioned that there is not one size fits all, I ask what he thinks of the PCC model.
“Any model is as good as the people taking on the roles, and we’ve seen some successes with PCs and PFCCs and we’ve seen some challenges as well. What’s important with any governance model is that people know who they’re accountable to, that the understanding is there of who undertakes which role, so the role of the fire chief and of the PFCC are very different. One is governance, one is running the day-to-day organisation.
“As long as those roles are respected, and as long as there’s no interference in the work of the fire chief in relation to that, or unnecessary interference, it’s as good a model as any as far as I’m concerned.”
Andy concedes that there are other good models, saying that the mayoral model approach can work very well. “Whatever governance model, it’s understanding what the role of governance is as opposed to operational day-to-day running of the organisation and not fettering the chief in their attempts to do that.
And, of course, the police provides the model that you’re used to working in for the last 36 years. You can just point to that?
“Absolutely. Operational independence. And that’s been in policing for a long, long time. I think it’s massively important for any leader of an organisation where it has a political governance. The politicians should not interfere in the day-to-day business of an organisation, they should govern it. They should, quite rightly, ask searching questions, question that decision-making afterwards, I have no problem at all with that. But let the leader of that organisation crack on with leading the people properly, while providing the right levels of safety and performance is really important too.
“I very dimly remember the days of the police authority and what I remember from that was that everything took such a long time for decisions to be made, going through various committees etc. If you’ve got a good PFCC, that allows you to make quick decisions, like to work as a team and that allows you both to focus on what’s important, which is protecting the public.”
Absolutely. One of the problems in terms of leadership and governance is around the musical chairs of chief officers coming and going at a staggering rate. With only three out of 13 services receiving a good grade for leadership and capability, how does the service move forward and overcome these obstacles?
“There needs to be that cradle to grave leadership approach throughout”
“I do think it’s possible and I do welcome the white paper on leadership development and what is being proposed of a ‘cradle to grave’ leadership approach in the Fire Service. We have seen too much movement at senior level in the Fire Service and not enough consistency of leadership. There have not been enough people applying for roles. Quite often being appointed internally lends to the echo chamber effect of it just carrying on in the same way, even if it’s not the right way necessarily.
“So no, it can be solved, it will take some time to do so. The right people need to be applying for the right jobs. There needs to be that cradle to grave leadership approach throughout. And there needs to be more sharing of good leadership practice right across the service.”
“We have seen too much movement at senior level in the Fire Service and not enough consistency of leadership”
See October's issue for HM Chief Inspector Andy Cooke’s first column in FIRE as we work with the inspectorate to disseminate best practice.
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