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Gloucestershire Business News

Action needed to restore confidence and trust within Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service

Confidence and trust need to be rebuilt within Gloucestershire's Fire and Rescue Service following the recent departure of the former chief fire officer, according to an independent report.

This is one of a number of recommendations made to the county council by the Audit Risk Assurance (ARA) following the high-profile departure and on-going investigation outside of the audit process of former fire service boss Stewart Edgar.

According to the report Mr Edgar's decision to resign has bought to light numerous other allegations around whistle-blowing and it also calls for a review of the council's key corporate policies (financial and non-financial).

"A significant number of additional whistle-blowing allegations together with Freedom of information requests were received notifying numerous other governance issues, the main concerns being around the culture within the GFRS," said the report.

"To ensure this was reviewed, the chief executive asked Peter Jones, former chief fire officer until 2006 and former county council deputy chief executive until 2015, to act as a conduit for staff concerns in relation to GFRS culture and advise regarding any findings."

Peter Bungard, chief executive at Gloucestershire County Council, has accepted the findings and recognises a need for a change of culture.

"Our fire and rescue service delivers strong outcomes in communities across the county but we must also have confidence that the processes behind the scenes are robust.

"Where governance arrangements are not there, aren't appropriate or aren't strong enough we must take the necessary steps to correct the situation.

"The work being recommended, some of which is already underway, will do this. In addition, the wider checks proposed will help provide reassurance that we are doing all we can to ensure we conduct ourselves at the level expected of us.

"Where a colleague raises a concern, they can be confident that it will be taken seriously and appropriately investigated. I have made this point to the service and indeed the wider organisation and encourage anyone to speak up, if they think something isn't right."

The county council's audit and governance committee is due to meet on Friday, October 12, where it will hear that a range of compliance audits should be carried out "to strengthen governance arrangements within Gloucestershire's Fire and Rescue Service (GFRS) and rejuvenate the culture within the service".

The ARA's series of recommendations aim to ensure that where better process and governance arrangements are needed, they are established as quickly as possible.

The five key recommendations are:

• To rebuild the confidence and trust within GFRS, the "cultural review "of GFRS undertaken in 2016, which seems to have initially been well received, needs to be rejuvenated, and implemented in a timely manner.

• Focusing on the governance areas identified as part of the investigation and notified as part of the whistleblowing allegations, internal audit to immediately commence a series of extensive compliance audits across GFRS.

• In addition to the above, during the next 18 months, internal audit to undertake 'pure compliance' audits across the whole council. These audits will review compliance with the council's key corporate policies (financial and non-financial).

• To ensure that GFRS staff are made aware of the Council's Contract Standing Orders, Financial Regulations and Accounting Instructions, the provision of relevant (including financial management) training is provided. Consideration should also be given to introducing a countywide training programme that is not just restricted to GFRS which includes periodic refresher training.

• Internal audit to test the adequacy of the 2018/19 Directors and Heads of Service Governance Assurance Statements, which in relation to GFRS may previously have given false assurance. This activity will be incorporated into Quarter 1 of the 2019/20 Internal Audit Plan.

There will be ongoing audit oversight as the detailed work is carried out and the Audit and Governance Committee will receive updates on progress against each of the recommendations in line with the deadlines set out in the report.

Outside of the audit process, an allegation was made in relation to the role of the ex-chief fire officer in disposing of a GFRS Land Rover Defender. This matter is said to have been fully investigated by ARA and is now being handled by Gloucestershire Constabulary which is currently carrying out its own investigation.

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