Panel hearing for Northamptonshire commissioner's preferred fire chief goes ahead despite concerns from councillors and union

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Northants Police Fire and Crime panel interviewed Nikki Watson on Tuesday, despite questions about her IOPC investigation and if it was appropriate

The panel hearing for the Police Fire and Crime Commissioner’s (PFCC) preferred candidate for Northamptonshire’s fire chief went ahead on Tuesday (February 20), despite objections from the fire union and questions about whether the meeting was appropriate.

Nikki Watson, whom PFCC Stephen Mold recommended in November last year, is currently facing an Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation. It has been confirmed that the matter is surrounding her attendance at a policing conference in 2023 and whether proper procedures were followed, however no further update has been disclosed.

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The police fire and crime panel, which consists of 12 members from West and North Northamptonshire, were also not privy to any extra information on the status of the investigation before the hearing. Several members spoke in objection to the event still going ahead and asked to defer or veto their decision until the IOPC had concluded their inquiry.

The rescheduled panel hearing for Ms Nikki Watson took place on February 20.The rescheduled panel hearing for Ms Nikki Watson took place on February 20.
The rescheduled panel hearing for Ms Nikki Watson took place on February 20.

Councillor Zoe McGhee (Labour, NNC) told the meeting: “There’s far too much in the air here. It’s not just me saying this we’ve all had over 250 emails about this. Just reflect a moment on how ridiculous this is.”

Councillor André González De Savage (Conservative, WNC) read from the county’s fire and rescue policy, which stated that “the candidate must have no outstanding performance, disciplinary or attendance issues” if going for a promotion in any respect.

He added: “Clearly, there is a disciplinary issue therefore how can we make a decision based on that? How can the panel be put in the situation to make a decision that doesn’t actually comply with its own Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service Policy?

“I’d very much like the clarity that was promised to us.”

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The panel were told by the chair, Councillor David Smith, that if a decision wasn’t made on the day Commissioner Stephen Mold would be able to appoint Ms Watson himself anyway. They were told that a recommendation could be made based on a “successful” conclusion to the investigation.

This was the second time Ms Watson was due to appear at a confirmation meeting after she did not attend the previous one scheduled in December 2023. It was revealed to the panel that the IOPC complaint arose after she was named as the preferred candidate, and Ms Watson was informed the day before her initial hearing was supposed to take place.

PFCC Stephen Mold said: “I am pleased to introduce Nikki Watson as my preferred candidate. I took the decision to arrange a confirmation hearing pending the outcome of the investigation.

“I felt this was preferable to delays that will bring a continued period of uncertainty. Nikki tells me she is confident this matter is without substance and hopes it will be rapidly resolved.”

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The panel went on to interview Ms Watson for her suitability for the role. The PFCC and Ms Watson have previously come under fire from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for her background as a senior officer in the police force and a perceived lack of experience in the fire service.

Ms Watson said: “I would hope people would judge me when they hear me and see me rather than what they read about me. I’m not going to pretend I know everything technical and specific around firefighting.

“I’d absolutely accept the accountability and I’d stand up and be held accountable, but I’d work with the team. It’s about the way that I engage with the workforce, I listen, I make sure that our processes and procedures are fair and transparent.

“Everybody is entitled to an opinion and I would expect to be held to account and to be able to explain my background, my experience, my training. I’m not a shrinking violet, I’m happy to listen and I will be happy to explain.”

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Adam Taylor, FBU executive council member for the East Midlands, said: “Northamptonshire is being failed by the members of the police fire and crime panel who voted to appoint a chief fire officer with no firefighting experience, who has been revealed to be under investigation by the police watchdog.

“Councillors received a staggering 2,000 emails calling for the veto of this appointment. It’s clear that the public stands with firefighters in expecting accountability and integrity. We await the outcome of the ongoing IOPC investigation, and the Fire Brigades Union will continue to demand better.”

The panel went into a private session to decide whether to recommend the appointment. A decision to veto the appointment must be supported by at least two-thirds of the panel members.

Their decision has not yet been made public.