Posted on January 28, 2008

Fire Brigade ‘Discriminating Against White Men’

Richard Savill, London Telegraph, January 28, 2008

A fire brigade has been accused of pursuing a policy of discrimination after it excluded white men from part of a recruitment drive.

Only women and people from ethnic minorities are allowed to attend four of the five open days being held by Avon Fire Service to attract new recruits.

The fire brigade said it was targeting specific groups because currently 97 per cent of its 921 employees are white men.

But MPs, serving firefighters and race relations groups questioned whether it was acting illegally by pursuing positive discrimination.

Phillip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “This sort of thing makes people’s blood boil, and does more damage than good to race relations in this country.

“How would people react if women and black people were banned from an open day?

“These campaigns are also enacted by white men, and it is deeply patronising.

“I don’t care whether the Fire Service is only made up of ethnic minority women as long as they are the best people at fighting fires.”

A serving firefighter, who declined to be named, claimed targeted recruitment drives were “not helpful” as they caused tension in the service.

He said: “It has a very negative effect on everyone. When we see people from black and ethnic communities working as a firefighter, the first thing you think is ‘Have she or he only got the job because of their minority origin?’

“It is not helpful to them as they may also feel that this is the case. Open, across the board recruitment is the only way to stop this.”

The Bristol-based charity Support Against Racist Incidents, which provides support to victims of racism at work, also criticised the drive.

Its director Batook Pandya said: “None of these days should be closed to white communities. Positive discrimination is illegal, it has to be a level playing field—that’s the law.”

At the open days, known as “have a go days”, potential recruits meet firefighters, use firefighting equipment, and hear about the selection tests, ahead of the application deadline on Feb 4.

Two of the six-hour sessions have been limited to women and ethnic minorities, one to ethnic minorities only and one to women only.

Avon Fire Service said engaging in “positive action” by encouraging more people from certain groups to apply for a job, which it said was lawful.

The Chief Fire Officer Kevin Pearson denied it was engaging in positive discrimination because the open days did not involve selecting people for jobs.

He said: “I totally refute the allegation that Avon Fire Service is engaged in any form of positive discrimination. It is unlawful and we would not do it.”

He added: “We are doing what we can to encourage applicants from women and minority groups who are currently under-represented in the fire service.

“It is my concern to improve diversity so the fire service reflects the community it serves and we can provide the best possible service. But that positive action stops at the point of selection. Once someone has applied, they are selected on merit.”

He said the service was aiming for 15 per cent of its workforce to be female, and three per cent to be from ethnic groups.

Two years ago, Avon and Somerset police paid compensation to a rejected white male recruit it turned down due to “positive discrimination”.

Ralph Welsman was one of 186 white men whose applications were rejected in favour of those from women and ethnic minorities.

Counsel told the force that its policy could have contravened the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Act. The policy was later scrapped.

Avon Fire Service was at the centre of controversy last year when four firemen were disciplined for shining their torches at four gay men having outdoor sex in park bushes.

Two of the firemen were fined up to £1,000; one was demoted in rank and the other given a written warning.

Each of them was also ordered to attend an equal opportunities course titled “Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender Equality in the Fire Service—an absolute taboo?”