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Theresa May criticises lack of diversity in fire and rescue crews

Theresa May has attacked a lack of diversity in fire and rescue teams as she set out plans to reform the service.

The Home Secretary said the firefighter workforce is "96% white and 95% male".

Empahsising the need for action on the issue, she said: " it is not just professionalism and integrity that underpin the relationship with the public, it is also how representative fire and rescue services are of the communities they serve."

Last year she attacked the lack of black and minority ethnic officers in the police.

She also warned that a "culture of bullying and harassment" seen in some fire and rescue authorities "can no longer be allowed to persist" as she made her first major speech on plans to shake up the service since it fell under Home Office control earlier this year.

Mrs May announced plans to introduce a "rigorous and independent" inspection regime for fire and rescue in England.

She said it was "almost impossible" for people to scrutinise their local service as they are examined by a system of "peer challenge" which "provides no assurance whatsoever to the public".

Mrs May said: "It is not so much marking your own homework as setting your own exam paper and resolving that you've passed - and it has to change."

Inspection powers will be strengthened to put beyond doubt the powers of fire inspectors to enter premises and access information, while action will be taken to ensure the G overnment has the power to commission inspections of particular issues or services.

Procurement data from every fire and rescue authority in England will also be published to shed light on how much each is paying for items such as uniform, operational kit and vehicles.

Reform must extend to chief fire officers, Mrs May said, adding that there is "widening disparity between the pay of chief fire officers in different parts of the country, with little relationship to their skills, performance or the size of the role".

In the 15 years since the Home Office last oversaw fire and rescue services, the risk of fire has fallen considerably, Mrs May said.

"Buildings are safer, families and communities are more secure, and firefighters' time is being wasted far less", she said.

However, she argued the service has "succeeded in spite of the framework it operates in, not because of it".

She added: "I intend to work with fire and rescue services to deliver a programme of reform that is as radical and ambitious as I have delivered in policing since 2010."

Fire and rescue authorities have "shouldered their fare share" in delivering savings, Mrs May acknowledged, but warned more would need to be found over the next four years.

The challenge facing senior officers is how to reform the workforce "to meet a completely different risk and demand model", she said, but stressed "this does not and should not mean a reduction in the quality of front line firefighting".

Earlier this year the Government announced measures to enable police and crime commissioners to take on responsibility for fire and rescue authorities "where a local case is made", while emergency services will be placed under a statutory duty to collaborate.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: "The Home Secretary may be surprised that we agree with her on some of the issues she raised.

"We have been calling for an independent inspectorate for some time, as the current system had led to huge imbalances on the standards imposed on services across the county."

He added: "We are all however surprised about the claims that the Home Secretary has made about the size of the fire and rescue workforce not having changed in the past decade.

"The record cuts that this Government have imposed on the fire and rescue services have resulted in far fewer frontline firefighters and is contributing to a poorer and less reliable public service.

"Whilst we want to work with the Home Secretary for a greater diversity in our fire and rescue service, it needs to be pointed out that it was her government who in 2010 chose to remove the diversity targets that were in place, sending a clear signal to employers that diversity was of being downgraded."

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