In a landmark victory, the FBU has succeeded in getting a discriminatory government pension scheme revoked by the courts. This decision could result in a £4 billion annual payout for public sector pensions.
This is a marvellous victory not only for the union and firefighters but potentially also for all public sector workers who have suffered government attacks to their pensions.
On 27 June, the court refused the government’s appeal against the decision made in December last year, which ruled that the pension scheme imposed in 2015 was discriminatory. This was the last legal hurdle in a long battle waged by the FBU against the government. The Tory government has also been ordered by the court to pay back the costs of the case to the union.
The new pension scheme would have resulted in millions of public sector workers losing out financially. The FBU’s main concerns about the scheme focused on the fact that the retirement age for firefighters was being raised from 55 to 60. And that those forced to retire from the fire service before 60 - due to ill health or deterioration of fitness levels - were now threatened with having half their pension taken away.
A government review commission agreed that - in the worst case scenario - 92 percent of firefighters would not be able to stay at the required fitness level to be able to retire at 60 with a full pension. Despite this, the government “ignored all the evidence” and demonstrated that “they simply do not have a clue about the work firefighters actually do” according to FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack.
A high level of fitness is required to ensure public safety and an efficient service. Firefighters are required to operate heavy machinery under great pressure, run with heavy hoses, and carry people out of burning buildings. There is also the important factor of the safety of the firefighters themselves.
The FBU rightly argued that working until 60 is unsafe. Firefighters’ natural decline in fitness with age meant that they were being discriminated against under this new scheme. Hence, this slippery scheme amounted to nothing short of a “robbery of pensions” by the Tory government. Many workers would not be able to meet the new conditions to get the full pension they are entitled to.
FBU members have been out on multiple strike actions and work stoppages over the past few years to combat the harsh pension scheme. In an interview with Socialist Appeal, a watch commander in the Bucks Fire Service said that deciding to go on strike “is a difficult thing to do and something that no firefighter does happily”. But “because the government was treating us so unfairly it left us with no option.”
Firefighters want to serve their community. But attacks to their pensions and cuts to the service as a whole makes their job even harder.
In Buckinghamshire, for example, the number of full-time and on-call firefighters is far below the national average of 312 and 227 respectively, at only 252 and 116. This is symptomatic of the impact of cuts nationally.
With this in mind, the watch commander said that he and his colleagues went on strike for one hour during the day, in order to protest whilst not putting the community at risk. However, the fire service bosses in Bucks “didn’t let [them] return to work for the whole day”. This meant that the community only had a limited service for nine hours thanks to the fire service directors refusing to let the firefighters resume work.
The watch commander commented that some firefighters didn’t go on strike as they “didn’t think it was a fight we could win”. However, their fears have been proved wrong. A determined stance has won through against all odds.
The efforts of the union in securing this victory are clearly appreciated by its members. The watch commander we spoke to expressed “so much gratitude to the FBU” and commended their “courage to take on the government”. The legal procedure “could’ve bankrupted them” and “no other union” had taken the government on in the battle over pensions.
This is a huge victory for firefighters and public safety. Firefighters deserve a good pension, and to retire at a safe age before their fitness naturally deteriorates from the strain of a physically demanding and dangerous job which saves lives and homes.
Not only have the firefighters won, but the implications of this court ruling could be a huge win for public sector workers as a whole. Matt Wrack put it best, saying: “when the workers unite we can take on the bosses and the government - and we can win.”