By refusing to engage in dialogue over pensions, the mayor is turning his back on the people who put their lives on the line for us
After Boris set out proposals to ‘lock out’ striking firefighters, you could be forgiven for thinking he was recklessly putting politics above Londoners’ safety.
Not only would his provocative and politically motivated move inevitably exacerbate this lengthy ongoing industrial dispute, it would also put Londoners’ lives at risk. Firefighters returning to work from a short strike would be locked out for the day, with the fire brigade forced to rely on less experienced and significantly diminished fire cover despite the availability of full trained firefighters.
Earlier this week I wrote to the Fire minister, Penny Mordaunt, to ask her whether or not she supports the mayor’s irresponsible proposals, the ramifications of which would be felt far beyond our capital. The FBU suggest that the lock out would threaten the agreement on recall of firefighters in the event of a major incident nationally.
But it occurred to me that perhaps Boris too should be turning his attention to his Westminster colleagues who, instead of negotiating with firefighters, have taken a course that has led to this week’s 24-hour strike. As it is, Johnson’s proposals appear to be an ill-judged ploy to look tough on unions in the run up to his potential Tory leadership bid.
They say actions speak louder than words. So attempts by the government to force firefighters to work longer, contribute more to their pension, and then retire on a reduced pension if they are not fit enough to respond to operational incidents after the age of 55 speaks volumes about this administration.
Firefighters who already pay more towards their pension than others in the public sector have faced increases to their contributions for two consecutive years. Already contributing over 13 per cent of their salary, firefighters are now bracing themselves for a third year of government-imposed increases.
Underpinning this prolonged dispute is an apparent lack of appreciation for the demands and physical toil that firefighters encounter when fulfilling their duties. Current arrangements are such that firefighters can retire at 55 on the grounds of ill-health and still receive their pension. And whilst there is no doubt that we need our firefighters to be physically fit, we must also understand that there will be some firefighters left injured, exhausted and with reduced breathing capacity, who can no longer cope past 55.
In the parliamentary debate last December, the fire minister said that those who weren’t fit enough would be redeployed until they reach retirement. This simply can’t be delivered as fire authorities across the country have made clear. Firefighters’ anger at what they see as a lie by the minister was palpable at today’s protest in London.
What does it say about our government that they are willing to cut firefighters’ pensions by the back door, essentially turning their backs on the people who put their lives at risk for our safety? According to their own figures, up to two-thirds of firefighters could be forcibly ‘retired’ at 55 without their full pension, after years of dedicated service.
The industrial dispute is being prolonged by a regrettable unwillingness on the part of government to enter into a real dialogue with the unions. Firefighters have endured empty rhetoric and misleading whispers, intentional or unintentional as they may have been, from successive ministers. And yet what they haven’t seen is any real indication of a genuine willingness to compromise.
This is undoubtedly a matter of fairness. What is great about Londoners, and the wider British public, is that they resolutely will not tolerate unfairness.
The public still back the firefighters on this issue but this has been ignored by the government’s overwhelming desire to look tough on trade unions and the desire to bear down on the rights of public sector unions to take industrial action at all. You need look no further than Boris’ suggestion of a lock out to see that there is a clear goal further down the road to limit the right of firefighters to strike.
If the government wants an end to the strike, there is an alternative – they could, like devolved administrations, reach an agreement that provides additional protection to firefighters within the same cost envelope. Their refusal to do so demonstrates this is more about a fight than reaching an agreement.
Whilst the mayor has made his position on the firefighters strike crystal clear, he must now consider the needs of Londoners who rely on this vital service and use his influence amongst his Westminster colleagues to draw this matter to a close.
As is often the case during these kinds of negotiations, all sides may not get everything they wish for, but the mayor and the government must show willing to accept that the firefighter pension dispute revolves around a legitimate issue, and one which can only be resolved by the government engaging in a genuine dialogue.
Fiona Twycross AM is Labour’s London Assembly economic spokesperson. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.