The government is cutting firefighter pensions by the back door

The government is trying to force firefighters to work longer and pay more into their pensions.

Fiona Twycross is the London Assembly Labour Group fire spokesperson

There is no sign of the dispute over government changes to firefighters’ pensions ending.

The government is effectively cutting firefighter pensions by the back door. It is trying to force firefighters to work longer, pay more into their pensions and, if they are not fit enough to respond to operational incidents after they turn 55, to essentially sack them and withhold their full pension until they turn 60.

Under the current arrangements firefighters can retire at 55 on ill-health grounds and still receive their pension. We obviously need fit and healthy firefighters, but the very physical nature of the job means that some firefighters can no longer cope past 55 as they are exhausted, injured or have had their breathing capacity affected.

Indeed, the government’s own figures show that up to two-thirds of firefighters could be forcibly ‘retired’ (with a reduced pension) when they reach 55 under the proposals.

This issue boils down to fairness. Is it fair that people who work hard and risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe are forced to retire and then not receive their full pension for up to five years?

Is it really fair that as a society we turn our backs on those who have put their lives on the line for us?

Because that is exactly what the government plans to do; they continue to plumb new depths in their disregard for public service and should be ashamed of themselves.

So far we have had months of bellicose rhetoric from the government and very little sign of compromise. Indeed, far from compromise Brandon Lewis has pro-actively withdrawn his previous ‘final offer’ from earlier in the year effectively and provocatively moving the goal posts.

However, there may be a way out of this impasse. The government could show goodwill to all existing firefighters by ring-fencing their pensions, with no-one being forced to work longer than they were first promised. Secondly, the government should commit to no further contribution increases.

Firefighters already pay more than most other public sector workers – over 13 per cent of their salary. They have seen increases for the last two years, and the government wants a further increase for a third year.

Finally, there should be a clear and robust commitment from the government that no firefighter over the age of 55 will be dismissed for failing a fitness test. In such cases, the firefighter should be given every assistance in returning to fitness, otherwise they should be allowed to retire with an unreduced pension.

This commitment should be written into the pension regulations to ensure it is sufficiently robust and backed up by government funding. If the government concedes this and makes this concession, this could and should avert further industrial action.

This won’t keep everyone happy, indeed both the government and FBU could find fault with this proposal; but by coming together and working towards a negotiated solution we can avoid a long-running and no-doubt costly dispute for all parties concerned, particularly for Fire Authorities who are currently picking up a bill for a dispute that is not of their own making.

No one wants to see further industrial action, all sides must come together and agree as amicable a solution as possible. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement then we face a potentially long and drawn out dispute, it is time the government conceded that they aren’t the font of all wisdom on this issue, that they need to sit down with the FBU and start compromising.

The public expect people in public life to act responsibly and find solutions to problems, it is time Eric Pickles and his department lived up to that expectation.

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