I welcome the fact that Saturday’s industrial action was called off, as I am sure do Members across the House. That was a direct result of my Department’s facilitating constructive discussions between the employers and the Fire Brigades Union. I hope that that will provide the basis of a lasting agreement which ensures that hard-working firefighters have one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, while being fair to taxpayers.
Like the Minister, I welcome the fact that the firefighters’ strike that was planned for last Saturday was called off. I hope that the decision to conduct further talks will result in fruitful negotiations and sound guarantees for the firefighters. Will he tell the House why industrial action had to be called before he would agree to talks through ACAS?
If I may correct the hon. Lady, it was my suggestion to involve ACAS. I cannot say why the Fire Brigades Union called the strike action in the first place. We said that it was unnecessary and we still believe that it is unnecessary. We hope that the Fire Brigades Union and the employers implement the principles that they agreed with our facilitation to ensure that nobody is left without a job or a pension at the age of 55.
I congratulate the Minister and his officials on the sensitive way in which they have carried out the difficult negotiations. Will he confirm that, subject to the sensible resolution of details between the employers and employees, the cost envelope and principles that have been agreed will not only protect firefighters in cases of genuine ill-health retirement, but allow them in cases of full service to retire on one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. As he will know from the excellent work that he did in negotiating with the Fire Brigades Union for the first two years of this Government, the issue of fitness and capability is for the employers to resolve, not the Government. I am pleased that we were able to facilitate the parties in coming together and I hope that they will come to a conclusion that ensures that firefighters have one of the best pension schemes in the public sector.
The Minister responsible for the fire service has not been doing his job. First, he wanted to privatise the fire and rescue service; then he imposed reckless cuts on it. Now he is suggesting that the fitness standard should be lowered so that front-line firefighters can be forced to work until the age of 60. Does that not display contempt for these courageous public servants who risk their lives to keep us safe? Does he not agree with me that it would be more appropriate if he did his job? If he had done it properly in the first place, the dispute could have been avoided.
The hon. Gentleman does himself a huge disservice in the way that he puts the question, for a couple of reasons. Putting aside the fact that the retirement age of 60 came in under the Labour Government in 2005, the issue about fitness and capability is, as I have said, for the employers and the Fire Brigades Union to resolve. I am delighted that we have brought them together.
My hon. Friend is quite right. He reminds me that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) also made a point about privatisation. As has been made clear a number of times from the Dispatch Box, that is a fallacy that he made up. I know that he continues to perpetuate it, but it is a complete fallacy and is not what this Government are doing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) is right that firefighters will end up with one of the best schemes in the public sector and that the age is being brought into line with the police and the armed forces.