Government accused amid fire strike

Published: Friday 31st October 2014 by The News Editor

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The Government has been accused of showing “contempt” for public sector workers as firefighters prepare to stage a four-day strike in a bitter row over pensions.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union in England will walk out at 6pm tonight and set up picket lines outside fire stations across the country on one of the busiest weekends of the year because of bonfires and firework displays.

Fire brigades will again launch contingency plans, including hiring contract staff to cover for striking firefighters, but the public were warned to be extra vigilant, especially if they attend a firework event.

The West Yorkshire brigade warned that the service and the public will be left in a “vulnerable position”, telling people to take extra care to ensure their own safety, while the London brigade said it may not attend rubbish or small grass fires or help anyone shut in a lift.

The FBU hit back at Government statements that firefighters will continue to receive one of the best pension packages of any worker even after reforms to their pension scheme.

General secretary Matt Wrack said: “We have a Government of millionaires who are wrecking the pensions of firefighters and other public sector workers while the real scandal is that their own pensions are by far the most generous anywhere in the public sector.

“This is a case of those at the top getting more while everyone else is robbed blind. Firefighters are sickened by the Government’s ‘snouts in the trough’ approach to this issue.

“How can it be remotely fair that the Prime Minister, already a millionaire, enjoys a far greater subsidy from his employer in absolute and proportional terms than a firefighter who is earning less than £30,000 a year? It is sickening hypocrisy.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Once again the Government is showing its contempt for public service workers. Evidence warns that raising the normal retirement age for firefighters would lead to older fighters facing no job and no pension after years of good service.

“This same evidence has already led to concessions being made in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – but the Westminster Government has chosen to walk away from the negotiating table.

“We are very concerned about the risks to firefighters, and those who rely on the fire service, when firefighters are forced to stay in frontline service until they reach the age of 60.”

Industrial action has been averted in Wales as a result of a “significant” change of direction by the Welsh Government, said the FBU.

The union said: “While the Westminster Government continue to ignore the concerns raised by firefighters, the Welsh Government have now suggested an improved proposal that could significantly improve the position for a large number of firefighters in Wales. This would involve altering the way firefighters could choose to retire before the age of 60.”

The union described it as a breakthrough, which it said showed that the Welsh Government had taken into account a number of technical arguments which firefighters have raised during negotiations.

A series of strikes have been held over the past 18 months in protest at changes to pensions and the retirement age, which the union claimed could lead to firefighters losing their job if they fail fitness tests in their late 50s.

The Government has confirmed its plans to reform firefighters’ pensions, saying the scheme has been refined in response to consultations. A statement said the average firefighter retiring at the age of 50 today is expected to live and draw a pension for 37 years after a 30-year career.

The Firefighters’ Pension Scheme is the most expensive in the public sector and is forecast to have a cashflow deficit of almost £600 million by 2018-19, said the statement, adding: “Taxpayers cannot be expected to meet all of these costs.”

The Government said it will lay regulations setting out the terms of the reformed scheme, giving fire and rescue authorities time to implement changes before they come into effect next April.

No firefighter aged 55 or over will face being left without a job or a good pension, said the statement.

“These steps will benefit all firefighters, not least women firefighters, and those who will work beyond 55 if they so wish. As the impact of working beyond 55 years of age will only take start to take effect in 2022, there is time to ensure appropriate procedures are in place to reassure and support both the younger and older worker.

“This process, linked with generous ill-health arrangements and the opportunity for redeployment, should ensure that firefighters can continue to receive one of the best pension packages of any worker.”

Fiona Twycross, Labour’s fire spokeswoman on the London Assembly said: “It is deeply disappointing that we have got to this position, but it seems clear the Government is set on escalating this dispute. Formally tabling changes to firefighters’ pensions in Parliament this week was a deliberately provocative action at a time when all sides should be focused on negotiating.

“The Government’s own evidence clearly shows that the physical strain of a firefighter’s work means they are unlikely to be able to work beyond 55. It is therefore unsurprising that the Government’s plans to make firefighters work until they’re 60 or have their pension cut has little support.

“Whilst the public will rightly be concerned about the impact of the strike, it is equally clear that firefighters, who spend their lives protecting the public, would not take this action lightly.”

Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt said: “All fire and rescue authorities have robust and well-tested plans in place that include back-up support if needed. Public safety is the primary focus and if anyone needs emergency assistance, they should dial 999.

“It is regrettable that the Fire Brigades Union has announced this strike action, which is unnecessary and the aim of which is unclear.

“Pension regulations were laid in Parliament on Tuesday after extensive consultation and amendment.

“The Government recognises the role firefighters play in keeping the public safe and has worked hard to give them one of the most generous pensions in the public sector. We are also consulting on changes to ensure that no firefighter aged 55 or over will face a risk of being left without a job or a good pension.

“Under the new scheme, nearly three-quarters of firefighters will see no change in their pension age in April 2015.

“A firefighter who earns £29,000 will still be able to retire after a full career aged 60 and get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. An equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.

“Our thanks are with those who are working to keep the public safe over this period.”

Roy Wilsher, the Chief Fire Officers Association’s director of operations, said: “When the emergency services are called to attend unsafe bonfires or avoidable fire vandalism, it means that operational resources may have to be diverted away from life-threatening accidents and emergencies, with potentially tragic consequences.

“Fire, fireworks and alcohol can be a very dangerous combination at garden and street parties. This year we want bonfire night to be one of the safest on record and therefore we are asking members of the public who are thinking of holding their own bonfire or firework display to consider attending an organised display instead.

“These events are generally safer and more spectacular and therefore more enjoyable for friends and families.”

Published: Friday 31st October 2014 by The News Editor

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