The way Ministers in the Tory-led Government have handled firefighters’ pensions has been deeply irresponsible. They have presided over 47 separate periods of strike action by firefighters in England since September 2013 and, after more than three years of dispute, they have failed to negotiate a fair and sustainable solution.
The new Fire Minister offered firefighters warm words and raised their hopes when she first took up the post, only to cease negotiations and put down essentially the same offer that her predecessor in the role proposed in June 2013.
Labour cannot support the pension regulations for England because they are built on an assumption of a dangerously low aerobic fitness measure for firefighters. The Williams Review, which the Government itself commissioned, states that the aerobic fitness measure the Government is basing their plans on means “the risk of sudden catastrophic cardiac events increases… with a risk of sudden death particularly while undergoing high levels of physical exertion”. This flawed fitness standard would put firefighters needlessly at risk and fail to protect the public.
If a more robust fitness standard is implemented it would mean that the assumptions on which the Government’s pension regulations are based would no longer be valid. The result would be that a number of firefighters who try to maintain fitness would be unable to meet these operational standards into their late 50s through no fault of their own.
The Government’s firefighter’s pension regulations are not fit for purpose and Labour will oppose them. This is why I have signed the ‘prayer’ on the regulations, put forward by the Labour Party frontbench, with the aim of securing a full Parliamentary debate on the floor of the House to hold the Government to account and scrutinise the regulations. Over 250 MPs have signed this ‘prayer’ to put pressure on the Government to schedule a debate and give them a vote, and Labour have formally requested.
Importantly, these regulations are not the only configuration possible within the amount of money that the Treasury has set aside for the scheme, which we support. Devolved Governments are negotiating fairer alternative proposals within these financial limits and have averted strike action. In England, Ministers in DCLG have failed to do so.
Firefighters risk their lives to save ours and they deserve better than this – and I will continue to support them.