Politics and statistics have long had a chequered relationship. It’s one of the reasons people tend not to trust politicians as much as politicians would like. However, when – as the government is currently doing over changes to firefighter pensions – the abuse of statistics could endanger the lives of firefighters and put the public at risk this goes beyond the normal range of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.
Parliament will today debate Government plans to force firefighters to work until they are 60 or face cuts to their pensions. Clearly firefighters have to be fit in an emergency situation but Ministers are intent on pushing the changes through. This is despite their own review by Dr Williams stating two thirds of firefighters would not be able to maintain their fitness levels to the age of 60. In response the government has basically shifted the definition of what is safe to say that 100% of firefighters will be fit at 60 rather than shift their view on pension changes. The pension regulations laid down by the fire minister Penny Mordaunt MP on 28 October are effectively the same proposals that were put forward in June 2013 by her predecessor Brandon Lewis – like then, the opposition today is equally strong.
The minister has suggested that no firefighter will lose their job as a result of failing the fitness test as they approach retirement. It is not clear how this is feasible given the likely continued drive towards efficiency and back office jobs being cut back across the fire service. Simply saying nobody will lose their job cannot magic jobs up that no longer exist. Mordaunt’s credibility is already damaged beyond repair having spent months promising firefighters movement on what would be offered and then shortly before she laid the regulations, offering nothing new.
Concerns over the fitness test, and the massive loss of pension firefighters would see if they did not meet it and were forced to retire early, is one of the reasons firefighters have been taking industrial action over the past year. As spokesperson on fire for City Hall Labour and Leader of the Labour Group on the London Fire Authority, I’ve spent months calling for the government to listen to firefighter concerns. I’m delighted that Labour nationally has recognised the significance of what firefighters are concerned about and forced the debate on the proposed pensions’ changes that is taking place today. The Early Day motion that has been promoted by Labour and the FBU in the run up to the debate (EDM 454) ‘praying against’ the regulations is sponsored by Ed Miliband. For a party leader to do this is unusual and this and the whipping of the vote shows the importance being placed by Labour on this issue.
While the Westminster government says there is no room for movement, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the respective governments have come up with changes to the proposals that meet some of the FBU’s concerns. This demonstrates that it is an unwillingness to compromise not an inability to come up with a better offer that is the issue. The potential deals in devolved nations were arrived at within the same cost envelope as being offered but remove much of the cliff edge that would see firefighters lose over a fifth of their pension if they retire at 55. The FBU has moved hugely in the past year. They are willing to accept that the cost envelope is where it is, however, are rightly sticking to their guns on the issue of the impact of early retirement and over safety and fitness. At the most basic level, a trade union’s role has to be about making sure their members are protected from unnecessary (and it is entirely unnecessary) hardship and from actual physical harm. Firefighters spend their lives protecting their communities and deserve to be treated properly when they come to the end of their working lives.
At this point it is not clear which way the vote will go give it is likely to need the support of at least a few MPs from the Liberal Democrats and MPs from areas where responsibility for the fire service has been devolved.
In the context of the debate on devolution, and coming two days after the Scottish leadership election, this might be seen as problematic. However, for English firefighters – and for the communities they serve – it would be a conundrum worth creating in support of worker’s rights in the face of one of the most anti-union government’s you could ever imagine. With new signatories to the EDM late last week coming from parties including the DUP, SNP and Plaid Cymru, there are signs that some politicians from outside England may also take this view.
Forcing the issue, won’t automatically change the government’s position, but it may force them back to the negotiating table and make them realise that sometimes compromise is worthwhile if it makes people safer and things a bit fairer than they may otherwise be. With the FBU’s Executive Committee due to be meeting tomorrow to decide their next move, and pressure from some of their members to escalate the strike action, this week could prove pivotal in the dispute. Penny Mordant and her colleagues have to recognise that without compromise there could be disastrous consequences of their ideological drive to play with fire.
The government’s announcement today that they are considering running hospitals and the fire service outside the public sector suggests that they will not be minded to be conciliatory.