FBU picket line in Norwich on September 25th 2013, the first of the strikes in defence of the pensions agreement
FBU picket line in Norwich on September 25th 2013, the first of the strikes in defence of the pensions agreement

FIREFIGHTERS in England are striking for 24 hours from 7am this morning in their long running dispute with the government over its unworkable pension plans.

Today’s 24 hour strike coincides with a rally and protest in Westminster, assembling from noon at Methodist Central Hall, Storeys Gate, London SW1 9NH.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said on Monday: ‘Government ministers have ignored three written requests in the last few weeks by the union to meet to try to resolve this dispute.

‘Government ministers are quick to call this union “militant” and yet it’s them who still refuse to talk to us when we remain ready to meet and negotiate at any time.

‘Firefighters from all across the UK are attending a rally in Westminster on Wednesday in a No More Lies protest aiming to hold this government accountable for the way it has misled Parliament, the public and firefighters alike.’

Providing background to the dispute, the FBU states that before 2010, firefighters already contributed one of the highest proportions of their salary towards their pensions (11%).

The government increased contribution costs for firefighters to more than £4,000 a year from a salary of around £29,000.

Firefighters will be expected to work until they are 60 however the government’s own report by Dr Tony Williams, published in December 2013, recognises that two thirds (66%) will not meet the current fitness standard.

The plans mean that firefighters, whose fitness declines as we get older, face a stark ‘choice’: leave with a significantly reduced pension of more then 20% or face dismissal from the service.

Firefighters will only receive the full pension they signed up for if they work for 40 years in the service which given current retirement and fitness rates is unlikely for the majority of firefighters.

Firefighters have demanded that prime minister David Cameron and speaker of the house John Bercow take action over the way that MPs were misled by a government minister in a Parliamentary debate on firefighter pensions.

Ministers informed MPs in the House of Commons, prior to a vote on the 2015 firefighters’ pension scheme, that any firefighter over age 55 who failed a fitness test through no fault of their own, would receive a full, unreduced pension.

The ‘guarantee’, initially welcomed by firefighters, turned out to be totally worthless as both fire authorities and the national employers of the Fire and Rescue Service confirmed that they could not guarantee this position.

Worse still, the biggest employer in England, the London Fire Brigade, confirmed that it had actually advised the government of this before the debate.

Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt gave the guarantee, which was subsequently confirmed by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for the department of communities and local government (DCLG).

However, when the FBU wrote to all fire authorities asking if they would implement this parliamentary guarantee, the responses from the national employers and a number of authorities clearly stated that they would not.

In fact, London Fire Brigade confirmed that it had legal advice which showed why it could not implement the guarantee.

This supported the FBU position that any guarantee would need a regulation change.

The London Fire Brigade also confirmed that it had informed the minister of this before she gave the guarantee.

Despite this the minister used the promise of a guarantee to influence the Parliamentary vote knowing full well that the assurance was worthless.

FBU general secretary Wrack said: ‘It is clear that when Penny Mordaunt gave the guarantee in Parliament she would have been aware that no fire authority ever planned to implement the “guarantee”.

‘In order to win the vote to pass the flawed firefighters pension regulations Penny Mordaunt misled firefighters and Parliament.

‘The minister is still writing to firefighters telling them they have the guarantee when she clearly knows that they do not.

‘Firefighters are unbelievably angry with the disgraceful actions of this government.

‘Since the debate where the guarantee was given, the FBU has written to Penny Mordaunt asking for an explanation and meeting to clear this up once and for all.

‘The fire minister has simply ignored these requests and refused to meet the FBU in order to resolve this dispute.

‘Firefighters still face the choice of either being sacked or receiving a severely reduced pension if they fail fitness tests as a result of naturally declining fitness through age. Exactly the opposite of what the minister told Parliament.’

In a letter to the prime minister, Wrack reiterated that firefighters are committed to resolving the dispute through negotiations but that the false ‘guarantee’ is ‘a clear case of Parliament being misled by your government’.

He went on to say: ‘This has been the pattern throughout negotiations with DCLG in regard to the firefighter pension scheme and a key reason why firefighters in England remain extremely angry at the failure of the government to take proper account of the evidence available.

‘This has now become a matter not simply of policy but of trust and confidence in the Parliamentary procedure and your stewardship.’

The FBU has also written to all members of parliament as well as the Speaker of the House asking what they intend to do knowing that Parliament was misled.

Firefighters in Northern Ireland have lifted their trade dispute as the result of a revised and improved offer with a lower pension age.

Firefighters in Scotland will not be on strike as a result of genuine negotiations having delivered changes to the proposals facing firefighters.

Firefighters in Wales will not be on strike as a result of ongoing genuine negotiations and clear indications that they will improve the proposals facing firefighters.

l The FBU has welcomed the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s guilty plea into the death of our brother and friend firefighter Ewan Williamson who lost his life in the line of duty fighting a fire at the Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road, Edinburgh on the 12 July 2009.

The FBU will need to see the full guilty plea from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service before a more detailed response is issued.

This will come after full court proceedings have concluded.

Lothian and Borders FBU officials have spent the last five and a half years supporting Ewan’s family and our members through this very difficult time.

Denise Christie, of the FBU in Edinburgh, said: ‘I would like to thank and pay tribute to all those members who have continued to work professionally throughout this period.

‘It’s been a very difficult time for all those involved and I hope that this can now be the start for everyone to move on without the anxiety of a court case hanging over them.

‘Ewan was a brilliant firefighter, a great friend to all at Tollcross Green Watch and throughout the fire service and beyond.

‘He will never be forgotten and will always be in our thoughts.’

Stephen Thomson, Scottish FBU Secretary said: ‘The FBU welcome the decision by the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service to plead guilty today and we hope that this will help Ewan’s family move on with their lives.

‘Clearly when we see the full judgement on Friday 20 March the FBU will comment in detail, but it is important that lessons are learned and we never find ourselves back here in the future.’