A dispute with the government has led to Fire Services striking all over the country. In London, where more strike action could take place, Mayor Boris Johnson has threatened to withhold pay for any firefighter involved. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is unperturbed and insists the Conservatives must concede before Londoner’s lives are put at risk by further action.
Reporter: Sonal Gupta
Sub editor: Kait Borsay
February saw the FBU fight back against what it interprets as a government U-turn over changes to their pension scheme and retirement age. The union accuses Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt of misleading Parliament in December 2014, when she pushed through plans to raise the retirement age of firefighters in England from 55 to 60 years old and to increase their pension contributions.
According to the FBU, MPs voted in favour of the changes after being assured by Mordaunt that she had introduced a statutory guarantee that any firefighter over the age of 55, who failed a fitness test through no fault of their own, would receive a redeployed role or a full, unreduced pension.
After contacting a number of fire authorities all over the country it became clear to the FBU that no such statutory guarantee existed.
Implication for Londoners
Parliament Square – traffic is being held due to a demonstration. pic.twitter.com/YZUC4XptEy
— TfL Traffic News (@TfLTrafficNews) February 25, 2015
London firefighter David Shek was among over 2000 who protested against Mordaunt in Westminster on February 25.
Firefighters crammed into the Methodist Central Hall, while others remained outside. Shek was surprised the “mayhem” caused was not more widely reported in the media:
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is playing it tough, threatening to withhold a full day’s pay for any of the capital’s firefighters who engage in strike action.
The FBU feel they have been stung by the Conservatives, here, Shek explains the political consequences:
Shek also believes the media could play more of a role to generate awareness.
The union’s general secretary Matt Wrack said: “It is outrageous that the only way the government could win a vote on this is by blatantly misleading MPs.”
In a letter to Wrack dated 24 February 2015, the day before strike action, Mordaunt defended her position, saying it was not possible to include a statutory agreement on firefighter’s fitness across England, because each authority had differing perimeters for measuring whether a firefighter is fit for duty. She wrote:
“For the avoidance of further doubt, it is not possible to include fitness provisions in the pension scheme regulation in England because this would require a single fitness policy agreed across all 46 English fire and rescue authorities. Fitness policies are a matter for each authority and the pension reforms do nothing to alter that.”
After February’s strike, a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said:
“Strike action is unnecessary and appears to be over a point which is a vast improvement on the 2006 scheme which required firefighters to work to 60 with no protection.”
In a blog on the FBU website, Wrack said: “we’re not giving up and we’re not going away.”
How it all began
The FBU’s dispute with the government over changes to pension plans and the retirement age has been rumbling on for some time. Strikes began in October 2013 – the first national walkout by the FBU for a decade.
In November 2013, firefighters in London were criticised for walking out from the scene of a major fire at a large scrapyard in Leytonstone, east London
On 9 December 2014, MPs backed government plans to raise the retirement age of firefighters in England from 55 to 60 years old and to further increase their pension contributions.
Firefighters marched in numbers in Buckinghamshire, to show their support for executive council member Ricky Mathews. In November 2014, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Fire and Rescue Service dismissed Matthews, a firefighter for more than 17 years, for joining in with industrial action during a four-day strike. The FBU promises to fight the dismissal, claiming that Matthews’ strike action was lawful.
On 10 February 2015, the FBU held a Recall Conference in Manchester to discuss how their campaign against Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt would continue. In a summary of the conference, general secretary Matt Wrack makes it clear they will harness all political advantage, saying:
“As the General Election approaches, plans are also being put in place in each Region to raise issues about the Fire and Rescue Service – including about pensions – during the campaign.”