After extensive consultation and numerous changes, the Government laid the final regulations before Parliament on 28 October. They provide one of the best schemes in the public sector. I regularly meet firefighters and will continue to do so.
We have just come through the longest firefighters’ strike in 38 years. When will the Government stop their politically motivated and disingenuous behaviour in this dispute and genuinely sit down with the Fire Brigades Union to settle this, as the Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are doing?
There has been extensive debate and consultation on these matters. I have dealt with any outstanding issues in the past few months, including those of the transition of armed forces pension schemes into the firefighters’ pension scheme and fitness protections. The regulations have now been laid, and it is evident from the questions coming from the Opposition that they do not understand the scheme. It is an excellent scheme, and to say otherwise would be to do firefighters a disservice.
In a letter to the shadow fire Minister on 5 September, the Minister stated:
“I am conscious that we will only have the ideas for the service to meet future challenges and aspirations if firefighters are engaged and feel an ownership for the service. Trust and good morale are key to this.”
How does refusing to change a single word of the regulation improve morale, and how does refusing to negotiate improve trust?
The irony of the hon. Gentleman’s question might be lost on him, but I am sure that it will not be lost on many Members of the House. There have been several changes to the scheme since it was originally published, including improvements on the 2006 scheme—introduced by Labour—which introduced retirement age at 60, disproportionately penalised firefighters who want to retire early and offered no protections on fitness. We have addressed those issues in the new scheme.
Will the Minister explain to me why my constituents who work for Welsh local authority fire services have reached agreement on a fitness test and a pension plan, through a negotiated settlement and at no extra cost to the taxpayer, yet my constituents who work for the Merseyside or Cheshire fire services, on the English side of the border, are faced with a strike because of an intransigent Minister?
What the right hon. Gentleman says is not correct; Wales and Northern Ireland have made no announcements on fitness. We are currently consulting on doing what Scotland has done through a regulation, which would offer firefighters those protections —we have to do that through a statutory instrument because we do not have one single fire authority for England. In addition, we are the only nation that has set up a working group on fitness to ensure good practice among all our fire authorities.
As I said earlier, it was Labour that introduced the retirement age at 60, but this is an issue that I—[Interruption.] I have to say that I take great offence, particularly at some of the paid-for advertising that has been run in local newspapers, which has been incredibly patronising towards older workers. We need older workers to stay in the fire service because they have great expertise. By offering protections on pensions and jobs for older workers and good practice for fire authorities to follow, we will ensure that in future they have the protections that Labour did not introduce.
In her open letter of 24 October, the Minister thanks firefighters
“for your patience in letting me work through these issues”.
The regulations she has put forward were in place in June 2013, so what exactly have they been patient for, and why does not she treat them with the respect that they deserve?
As an incoming Minister, I could have immediately laid the regulations, but I chose not to do so because I felt there were some outstanding issues, one major recurring theme being the many firefighters who have previously been in the armed forces thinking that they have been disproportionately adversely affected by transferring in their pensions. That is one issue I looked at, among others. Most importantly, I also met a number of groups, including women’s groups, within the fire service. I have trained as a firefighter and I am a serving reservist, so I know the stresses that women go through in order to maintain strength, in particular, in their fitness tests. That formed the bulk of our negotiations with the FBU. I am very happy that on the day we laid the regulations we also started a six-week consultation on putting protections for firefighters on a statutory footing.
Given that the Minister has recognised that there remain severe reservations about the fitness test for firefighters, is she saying that she will pass regulations that will ensure that firefighters who fail the fitness test will not lose their jobs, because there are insufficient numbers of back-office jobs in the fire service to accommodate them?
In negotiations with the FBU, the hon. Lady said that some firefighters might not be able to maintain operational fitness standards until the age of 60. She promised regulations to protect those firefighters, she promised to address the specific concerns of women firefighters, and she asked the FBU for detailed proposals. Now, she has torn up every promise, stopped negotiations, imposed her own regulations, and plunged the fire service into the longest and most avoidable strike in 36 years. Firefighters risk their lives on a daily basis. Do they not deserve better?
I have outlined in several previous answers the reason that we cannot use the regulation: we have more than one fire authority in England—we have 46. We must go through the national framework, but it will be on a statutory footing. I caution the hon. Lady on this: we want older firefighters and women to stay in the fire service, and she is not helping by spreading myths about the existing scheme.