First West of England were one of the first businesses to sign the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge. We talk to Managing Director James Freeman about why they signed up and what they have done since.
First West of England who run First Bus in Bristol, were one of the flagship organisations to get involved in the Bristol Zero Tolerance initiative. James Freeman the Managing Director attended the International Women’s Day event in March 2015 to sign the pledge and Sue Arrowsmith, Corporate Sales and Development Manager, has been an important champion of the initiative both within First and externally with their networks and business partners.
As a major employer in the region and Bristol’s largest bus operator it is important to have their involvement. As James notes “we are quite a high profile business that effect a lot of people’s lives. We have our employees, 1,800 of them across the West of England, of which 1,200 or 1,300 of them are in Bristol. We also carry so many people and impact on people’s lives so our getting involved with this impacts for us in the way we can portray ourselves, the way that we are actually.”
First cater for around 60 million passenger journeys every year and so their connection to the public and opportunity to engage with them when on their buses is unique. First drivers are on the streets of Bristol 24 hours a day 7 days a week and they cover almost every part of the city therefore they have a key role to play in supporting Bristol to become a Zero Tolerance City.
For James Freeman “a Zero Tolerance City means a place where people can just go about their lives without having to worry that they are at any risk of anything that they don’t want” and he believes that Bristol is well placed to gain Zero Tolerance status: “I think that Bristol has got a really good chance with this. Because Bristol is a very unusual place and there are a lot of people in this city who really believe in change and also believe in their fellow beings… It is a fairly aware society overall and this will help to make it more aware.”
In their pledge statement First West of England commits to “working in partnership with Bristol to tackle gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation… We will continue to develop our procedures for dealing with instances of abuse in the workplace and to enable our employees to be able to offer assistance in the wider community. Thus allowing safer travel on our buses.”
After signing the pledge, the company developed their action plan and they have committed to taking action in all of the suggested areas. For example, changing the way that new bus drivers are trained to focus on customer service and keeping passengers safe means that drivers are able to offer assistance to those that require it, such as vulnerable people, as well as to spot the signs of someone who is being harassed. To support their staff First has a confidential employee assistance programme which can be used to report harassment or bullying and enables people to remain anonymous. They also have policies and procedures, such as a Dignity at Work Policy, that protect both customers and staff against harassment and gender-based abuse and exploitation. As James comments “charity begins at home if you’ve got a good, well-motivated and properly educated, in that sense of wider education, workforce, and we will be doing a better job.”
As part of the action on creating safe spaces First also trains drivers to ensure that women who want to breast feed on the bus should be encouraged to do so and drivers should be available to offer assistance if required, for example if other customers disapprove. For James this includes individual behaviour change as well “this is about making the bus driver feel part of something which makes it alright not to tolerate certain types of behaviour and to draw attention to them and to try and deal with them. The biggest outcome from this for me will be when our drivers actually take this on board and really understand what a Zero Tolerance approach means for them as individuals not just us as a company.” First West of England also continually invests in new vehicles which have on average 15 CCTV security cameras allowing for safer travel and protection for customers and staff.
The implementation of the Bristol Zero Tolerance action plan also feeds in to the Better Journeys for Life initiative for customers and staff which reflects the company’s core values of commitment, safety, support, accountability and high standards. Again this feeds in to attitudinal and behavioural change on gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation which continues outside of the workplace: “if our people go home and they are thinking slightly differently that might just be the difference between something happening or not, or seeing something happening in somebody else’s lives and doing something to prevent that or to draw attention to it or to make a change. But I think it is very enabling, because what we are doing is putting something that is hidden on top of the table.”
For James signing the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge is an extension of the work that the company are already doing and enables them to highlight this and develop it further “it gives us an opportunity to codify things that we are probably wanting to do anyway and in general we think we were doing them already but we are probably not doing them so overtly.” Being involve in the initiative and addressing gender-based violence seems obvious to James: “Why on earth would you not want to sign it! For me it embodies the very things which I think are important… nowadays people are sometimes a bit afraid of taking responsibility, and I think it’s really important that we do take responsibility for our fellow beings, some of whom have more control than others. In our business where we are supporting literally millions of passenger journeys a year, a lot of our customers will be able to look after themselves but there will be some who need help and it seems to me entirely right that we should sign up to something which says that people can go about their business unhindered. And it’s the nature of things that quite often it’s women that feel themselves to be at risk.”
It is also important for the company to be part of a city-wide project and feed in to the actions that others are taking too: “actually we have learnt that various approaches work which is why being part of a wider programme makes sure that what we do is relevant and is a seamless line with what everybody else is doing… so it’s not just us doing this in this little vacuum all on our own, but it’s actually part of the way that society is functioning, that’s the real value of this and so we are so keen that other people in other parts of the city and other walks of life in the city pick this up as well so that there is an absolute read across from one part of people’s lives to another.”
The commitment of First West of England, and James in particular, to Bristol Zero Tolerance is an example of what the initiative is trying to achieve – to raise awareness of gender-based violence, abuse, harassment and exploitation and why it is not acceptable – “these things are simple, basic things and there’s nothing about the Zero Tolerance pledge which is weird or wild or that expects you to do something strange… nothing peculiar about it at all. The thing about it is that it’s so obvious, really, it’s amazing that we have to do it.”