I beg to move,
That the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014 (S.I., 2014, No. 2848), dated 23 October 2014, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28 October, be revoked.
This is an extremely important debate—I thank the Government for providing time for it—about an issue that firefighters feel very strongly about and which has been the cause of industrial action. Ministers ought to ask themselves why that is.
Let me begin by saying to the Minister that it was not acceptable to table a written statement this afternoon suggesting that all the concerns have been dealt when, on reading it, we discover that that is clearly not the case. Nor is it acceptable to claim, as she did in Communities and Local Government questions earlier, that she will guarantee an unreduced pension to firefighters who cannot maintain their fitness and cannot be redeployed, when in fact her own letter to me, also of today’s date, confirms that that is not the case. She should not try to pull the wool over firefighters’ eyes. I will return to that point later on.
This dispute is not about the need for change in this or other public sector pension schemes. We know that we are living longer and will therefore draw a pension for longer, and that means higher contribution rates and later retirement ages. Any Government have to ensure that public sector pensions are financially sustainable. Nor is this debate about challenging the cost ceiling for the regulations, because we accept that. This debate is about producing a pension scheme that is fair to firefighters and workable—something that, to date, DCLG Ministers have failed to do. Unlike the Governments in Scotland and Wales, Ministers have laid before the House regulations that are unfair to firefighters who, through no fault of their own, may have to retire between the ages of 55 and 60, and that are not based on what we would regard as a common understanding of fitness levels. I want to deal with each of those points in turn.
The Minister knows that the scheme is not the only one possible within the cost limit. The Government Actuary has told them that, and firefighters know it too. That is why the devolved Governments have proposed lower actuarial reductions. Firefighters in England, a very large number of whom have been lobbying their Members of Parliament in recent weeks, are therefore asking this question: if a different scheme can be offered to firefighters in Scotland and in Wales, then why not in England?
Regulation 61 of the statutory instrument deals with the penalties firefighters will face should they need to retire between the ages of 55 and 60. Under the Government’s proposals, firefighters will lose 21.8% of their pension at the age of 55, yet the Government Actuary has shown that there are two different ways of calculating that reduction: one that seems fair to firefighters, and another that is not, which is the one that the Government have chosen. This issue of the reduction is where negotiations in Scotland and Wales have made most progress. Scotland is not proposing a 21.8% reduction, as in England, but a 9% reduction, and in past weeks, Wales has also moved to consult on 9%.
I am so grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I just want to put on the record that we have a very amicable settlement with firefighters in Northern Ireland. Every time he referred to Scotland and Wales, my colleagues and I were saying that we have a very good settlement in Northern Ireland, which is why we do not have industrial action. The Government need to learn lessons from a very successful process in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Indeed, there has been no industrial action in Northern Ireland, and that is why I did not refer to the agreement that is in place.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather difficult for people like him, me and the Secretary of State, who do not need to maintain a level of fitness in order to earn our income, to understand the very real fear among firefighters? This issue has not been put up by the Fire Brigades Union; firefighters really do fear that they are not going to be able to cope with the inevitable deterioration that age brings to strength.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the concerns that very many firefighters have talked to many Members of the House about. That is, in part, the nub of this issue.
Although the Scottish Government have sought to find the best solution possible for firefighters in Scotland within the envelope available, does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that 60 is not an appropriate age for firefighters to retire and agree that we need to revisit the question of whether that is an appropriate healthy working life expectancy?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady, because when the 2006 regulations were introduced they made provision for that retirement age. The difference and the reason that there was no industrial action in 2006 was that firefighters felt that other jobs were available for those who could not maintain operational fitness. As I shall say in a moment, those jobs do not exist anymore.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons this Government cannot reach agreement on local government pension schemes in particular is that they are vindictive towards public services in general? We should also bear it in mind that this country’s fire service in general has suffered massive cuts under this Government.
My hon. Friend’s latter point is absolutely correct. It is very clear from this debate and the campaign that is being waged that Ministers have completely failed to win the confidence of firefighters.
Several hon. Members
I will give way one more time at this stage and then make some progress.
I applaud the way in which my right hon. Friend is contesting the regulations, because Labour Members simply cannot accept them when they fail to protect the public and needlessly put firefighters at risk. The Minister told the House earlier today that she will guarantee an unreduced pension to those firefighters who, through no fault of their own, face dismissal because they cannot meet the fitness standards, but the regulations do not provide that guarantee. Does my right hon. Friend also recognise that the firefighters themselves were told by the Minister during the negotiations that that would be the case, so they have been let down directly by the regulations?
Order. There is a limited time for this debate and a lot of people wish to speak. We must have very brief interventions.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and I shall come back to that point later.
On the offers made in Scotland and Wales, those devolved Governments are subject to exactly the same cost ceiling, so they have adjusted their accrual rates to come up with a fairer scheme. Why does that matter? It matters because firefighting demands certain standards of physical fitness, yet some firefighters reaching the age of 55 will, after decades of service and through no fault of their own, find they are unable to continue because they cannot meet the fitness requirements.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
May I make some more progress, if my hon. Friend will bear with me?
The FBU has proposed a fairer scheme, accepting that the accrual rate will need to be adjusted. In other words, firefighters will accept less pension if the Government will accept a smaller actuarial reduction for those forced to retire early. Indeed, an e-mail to the Department in January from the Government’s own deputy chief actuary reported back on the calculation of active early retirement factors from age 55. It confirmed that Ministers could indeed propose a scheme with a 12.8% reduction at age 55—rather than the proposed 21.8%—and calculated the exact accrual rate to ensure that the Treasury bears no extra cost. In other words, Ministers could reduce the actuarial reduction if they wanted to. Instead, they have laid regulations before the House that will leave those retiring at 55 facing the loss of more than a fifth of their pension. How is that fair?
That is the first problem with the regulations, and I now wish to turn to the second problem. The concern that many firefighters have expressed about having to take early retirement with a reduced pension would not be so great if there were other, non-front-line jobs in the fire service that firefighters over the age of 55 could be redeployed to for the rest of their career. The Minister talked about such jobs earlier. That used to be the case, but, as has been pointed out, reductions in funding for the fire service mean that there are far fewer of those jobs.
The Government commissioned Dr Tony Williams to conduct a review of the normal pension age for firefighters and to consider the associated fitness issues. This is the second relevant matter to this debate. Dr Williams published his report in January 2013, but I do not think that Ministers have taken proper account of what he had to say. There is not currently a nationally agreed fitness standard across the 46 fire and rescue authorities in England. Dr Williams says there should be one, and so do the chief fire officers. There is a very strong case for it, but the Government’s position has been that individual fire and rescue authorities should determine their own appropriate standard. In England, many use an aerobic fitness test, among others, that measures a firefighter's maximum oxygen intake with each breath, the so-called VO2 max measurement. The Williams review stated:
“The general standard used by many FRSs is a minimum fitness level of 42…while some have an ‘at risk’ standard of 35…where firefighters are allowed to continue on operational duties for a limited period while they undergo remedial fitness training.”
The Government, however, claim that firefighters will be able to maintain operational fitness until the age of 60 based on the following line in the report:
“a 35…VO2 max would ensure that 100% of firefighters who remain physically active will still be operational at age 60 assuming they remain free from injury and disease.”
One of the most important aspects is the safety of the public. If a 60-year-old comes to my house and he is unfit, I am not sure that I want him to deal with a fire.
That is the concern of everyone in the House. The most important thing is that firefighters should be fit to do the task they are asked to undertake and that they volunteer to do on behalf of society, and I am coming to that point.
We have two different potential measures of fitness, one of 42 and another of 35. Why does that matter? Dr Williams adopted a VO2 max of 42 as the benchmark for his recommendations because fitness levels are not academic. It is a question of safety. He said:
“Studies show that below an aerobic fitness standard of 42…the risk of sudden catastrophic cardiac events increases, and below the level of 35…the increase is significant”.
More recently, an interim report, produced by the university of Bath in March and entitled “Enhancing the Health, Fitness and Performance of UK Firefighters”, identified that
“firefighters with an aerobic capacity below an occupational fitness standard of 42.3…would not be guaranteed to be safe and effective in their ability to complete necessary roles within their occupation…the lower VO2 max standard of 35…for continuation of work with remedial training amongst operational firefighters is potentially unsafe for the majority of firefighters.”
The House is owed an explanation from Ministers. What do they have to say about that? I hope that the House will now understand why concern has been expressed about the question of fitness standards.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way, but then I am going to make progress.
Will my right hon. Friend come on to the issue of women firefighters, many of whom are fearful of being driven out? On the one hand, we are trying to get more women firefighters and on the other they are terrified of being driven out by these fitness standards.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and if she bears with me for just a moment I shall come directly to her point.
This is the central problem with the regulations: Ministers appear to have based all their assumptions for the pension scheme on the 35 VO2 max measure. They assume that all firefighters will be able to maintain operational fitness when they cannot even tell us what the fitness standard will be and when their own assumption of a fitness standard would put the safety of firefighters and the public at risk, which is what the Williams report and the report from the university of Bath say.
Dr Williams also states that many of the fire and rescue authorities, understanding the importance of the VO2 max standard, insist on a standard of 42 for operational fitness. Furthermore, Dr Williams found that in the best case assumption, if the 42 standard were used, as opposed to the 35 standard,
“the age related decline in VO2 max”—
due to the natural ageing process—
“would indicate that 15% of firefighters would be unfit for duty at 55 years, increasing to 23% at 60 years of age”.
As for women firefighters, Dr Williams said this:
“more women are likely to drop below the required aerobic fitness standard as they age.”
Those figures amount to a lot of firefighters, yet the Government have failed to respond properly to the Williams review. In fairness to the Minister, she has set up a working party to consider fitness standards, but we do not know what that working party will recommend. Given that many fire and rescue authorities have a fitness standard of 42, is she going to tell the House that she thinks it will recommend a lower fitness standard than that which is currently applied by many fire and rescue authorities?
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Since it is my hon. Friend, I will go against what I just said and give way.
I am interested in the point that my right hon. Friend is making about the lower fitness standard. Is he as incredulous as I am at the Minister saying that the Government are implementing the Williams review, when that review said that the lower aerobic fitness standard ran the risk of
“sudden death particularly while undergoing high levels of physical exertion”?
Is it not a disgrace and a stain on Government Members that they are prepared to put firefighters at risk of being killed while on active service?
The advice that has been given to Ministers by Dr Williams should be taken seriously, including that on the safety of firefighters, because the safety of firefighters impacts on the safety of the work that they do on behalf of members of the public in fighting fires. If a lower figure is recommended by the working party, the Minister will have a big problem, because Dr Williams has told her clearly that a number of firefighters will not be able to maintain their fitness up to the age of 60.
There is another problem.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Time is very short and I want to bring my remarks to a close.
While claiming that firefighters will be able to maintain their fitness, the Minister has simultaneously reassured the House that there will be redeployment opportunities. However, she has provided no evidence of that being the case. At oral questions on 10 November, the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) asked:
“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?”—[Official Report, 10 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 1165.]
The answer from the Minister was, “Yes.” If firefighters believed that answer, there would not be a problem, but they do not. The reason is that the Minister has been completely unable to explain to the House how she intends to ensure—that is an important word—that firefighters who find themselves in that position will not be dismissed. Indeed, when I asked the Minister last week in a written parliamentary question
“how many redeployment opportunities there are within the Fire and Rescue Service to accommodate firefighters who are unable to maintain an operational fitness standard”,
“We do not keep data on redeployment opportunities for firefighters.”
If the Department has no data, the Minister does not know, so how exactly can she make the promise that she has made? Where will the jobs suddenly come from?
The Minister then tries to rely on the Government’s promise to put fitness principles on a statutory footing, but there is a problem with that, too. The national framework is only guidance and cannot be binding because section 21 of the Fire and Rescue Act 2004 requires only that fire and rescue services “have regard” to the advice. In case there is any doubt, the Local Government Association employers said in response to the consultation:
“Whilst an FRA would of course have to be mindful of the content of the Framework it would not be compelled to comply with it”.
If fire and rescue authorities cannot be compelled to do so, where is the guarantee?
The alternative would be to pay an unreduced pension. My final question is where the Government’s guarantee is on that. I have here today’s written ministerial statement, which I have read carefully. Where is the guarantee? There is not one. I also have here the letter that the Minister wrote to me today, in which she says:
“The Framework also reminds fire and rescue authorities of the fact that they have the opportunity to retire firefighters over 55 on an unreduced pension if they so wish.”
That is not a guarantee. There is no guarantee.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am going to finish my remarks.
If we follow the Government’s logic, either the regulations are based on a flawed assumption about VO2 max levels or an additional burden will be placed on fire and rescue authorities at a difficult time. The truth is that the Government have put the pension regulations cart ahead of the fitness horse.
To conclude, the regulations are unfit because Ministers have drawn them up based on the flawed claim that all firefighters can maintain their fitness—it is flawed because Ministers cannot tell us what the fitness standard is and because their assumption on fitness is not safe. The Government claim that they will be able to maintain operational fitness standards for firefighters, and they try to offer reassurances that anyone who falls below those standards will be redeployed, even though by her own admission the Minister cannot say how many redeployment opportunities there are. They have failed to come forward with fairer early retirement actuarial reductions, despite the Government Actuary costing the alternative within the same financial constraints. Ministers have claimed that there is a guarantee that firefighters who cannot be redeployed and cannot maintain their fitness will get an unreduced pension, but the documents before the House today show that there is no such guarantee.
For all those reasons, we cannot support the regulations. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom have signed the early-day motion, know that the regulations are not fit for purpose, and I urge the House to revoke them so that Ministers can come back with something that will actually work and is fair to England’s firefighters.
Several hon. Members
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many Members wish to speak, and limited time is available. I will not put a formal time limit on speeches as yet, but let us see whether Members will keep their remarks to less than five minutes out of courtesy to colleagues. That does not apply, of course, to the Minister.
I can see that it will be up to me to recalibrate the debate —both the issues, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has been telling only half the story, and the tone. The Opposition have come to the House in anger to ask for the revocation of a pension scheme that improves considerably on their 2006 scheme, through a debate that they nearly did not call for—they did so only when there was no possibility of its being held before the regulations became law. Hon. Members and firefighters will draw their own conclusions about why that was the case.
The Opposition have proposed no alternative, let alone said how they would pay for it. They have not responded to the consultations, including the latest one on fitness. Protections will be introduced for firefighters, including those in the 2006 scheme who already work until 60.
The hon. Lady says that the Opposition have not provided an alternative, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has pointed out that alternatives have been found in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, so alternatives do exist.
No, the House should be clear that no alternative scheme is available. If the regulations were revoked, a new scheme would have to be designed and consulted on and then introduced in April, and there is very little time to do that. [Interruption.]
Order. The Minister must be heard. We have a short time for this debate, and Members must not waste time by jeering and laughing.
To refute the Opposition’s position is a straightforward job, but it is not the one I will focus on this afternoon. The fire service has had three years of wrangling over the arrangements, and there have been many changes to the scheme since it was originally proposed. Firefighters still have concerns, and we should remember that this is their debate. Many have taken the time to lobby Members and to write to me and meet me, and we owe it to them to focus on the outstanding issues, the facts of the matter and their concerns for the future. This is an opportunity to air their worries and their suggestions as to what should be done.
I thank all hon. Members who have put in to speak, raised their views with me or approached me with genuine concerns and in search of solutions. I am here to listen, and I will do all I can to address those concerns and provide reassurances, either today in the House or in the future. Let this debate be of the calibre that firefighters deserve, and let us remember that loose talk has potentially damaging consequences for those in the scheme, if they believe it. Many firefighters will be making financial decisions about their families’ future based on the messages that they take away from today’s debate. Let us remember that what we do today has far-reaching consequences.
When the Minister has finished lecturing the House, will she kindly tell us why, if there is no alternative to what she proposes, the dispute has been settled in various parts of the United Kingdom, within the same financial envelope? Why can she not even say how much this unnecessary dispute is costing the public?
I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend.
Let me return to the pertinent point—today’s debate is important and members of the fire service who are in the Gallery will want to hear it. I visited Rossendale Rawtenstall fire station and had a meeting with the Fire Brigades Union. Its two main areas of concern are, first, someone’s ability to be redeployed in the service at a similar level of pay and pension contribution if they fail the fitness test; and, secondly, some members of the fire service are disproportionately affected by having 20 years of service but not being 45 at the date specified. Will the Minister provide further assurances?
I will. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) is not correct in what she says, and the other nations have not settled. I will cover the points raised by my hon. Friend in my speech.
Several hon. Members
Let me make a little progress and then I will give way. Our goal has been to create a pension scheme that is sustainable and fair to firefighters and the taxpayer. The need to reform public service pension schemes is well established and not in dispute, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central noted. People are living longer, and the average 60-year-old now lives 10 years longer than in the 1970s. The cost of public service pensions has increased in real terms by about a third over the last 10 years, and the most recent fiscal projections from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the gross cost of public service pensions is set to exceed £40 billion in the coming years.
Firefighters are not immune to those longevity increases, and the average firefighter retiring aged 50 today after a 30-year career is expected to live and draw a pension for 37 years in retirement. It should come as no surprise to any Member of this House that a pension scheme in which the average member spends 25% more time in retirement than in employment is not sustainable. [Hon. Members: “Give way!] I will take interventions, but I want to make some progress. That is why one of this Government’s first acts was to ask Lord Hutton to chair the independent public service pensions commission and undertake a fundamental review of the structure of public service pension provision. Lord Hutton was clear in his report that the status quo was not tenable, and he proposed that a normal pension age for firefighters should be set at 60—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to have to make a point of order, but as the Minister is not prepared to give way I would like to correct the record. There is no industrial dispute with firefighters in Northern Ireland, and I would like the Minister to produce evidence that there is.
The hon. Lady will appreciate that that is not a point of order for the Chair; it is a contribution to the debate, and I am sure that the Minister will put her view or correct the record if she wishes in due course. [Interruption.] Perhaps the House will be quiet and allow the Minister to speak. There has been quite enough.
The retirement age of 60 was introduced in the new firefighters pension scheme 2006—a scheme that the shadow fire Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), helped to introduce as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Minister. It is the same age that Lord Hutton said should apply to members of the armed forces and the police, but it is well below the retirement age set for most public sector workers, recognising the unique nature of the occupation. Lord Hutton also proposed actuarially fair early retirement terms, and that pensions should be calculated on a career average arrangement. He found that the firefighters pension scheme 1992 is the most expensive public service pension scheme, at 37.5% of pensionable pay. Currently, for every £1 a firefighter pays into the scheme, the taxpayer pays an extra £5.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make some progress.
In 2008-09 the taxpayer topped up the firefighters’ pension fund with £260 million, just to meet that year’s expenditure. In 2012-13, the top-up was £370 million. The top-up is forecast to rise to nearly £600 million by 2018-19, an increase of £340 million over 10 years. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would agree that it is not fair to expect taxpayers to meet all the increased costs—
Will the Minister give way?
Order. Mr Lammy, the Minister is not giving way.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will take interventions, but I want to make some progress.
Those costs are being met by taxpayers, many of whom have no expectation of enjoying such a generous pension. That is why we ask firefighters, like other public servants, to pay more towards their pensions and rebalance the cost to the taxpayer. There have been three years of negotiations and many changes to the scheme. The notion that there has not is plainly untrue.
Several hon. Members
I will turn to the issues of contention, but I will take interventions.
I am grateful to the Minister. Does she accept that one of the most serious incidents in the past few years that we asked firefighters to deal with were the riots that went on for four days? Does she accept that the taxpayer wants firefighters who are fit? Does she accept that 60 is too old, and that a fitness test they cannot meet causes huge concern in constituencies such as mine?
I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend.
Labour is pretending to be outraged. Will my hon. Friend confirm that firefighters retiring at the age of 55 under the new scheme will see a significantly smaller reduction in their pension compared with the scheme introduced by Labour in 2006? Enough of this false outrage: let us talk about the substantive issue.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I will come on to the point about fitness shortly.
Several hon. Members
I will make some progress.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a convention of the House that, when an intervention is taken, the speaker addresses that intervention and answers it before taking another intervention?
That is not a point of order. The Member who has the Floor can answer interventions as he or she wishes. [Interruption.] Order. We will have order in this House. This is a serious debate, not a matter for squabble. Now stop the noise.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know many Members wish to speak and make interventions. I am trying to take as many interventions as I can, but if people want me to take fewer I will consider that.
The Opposition and the FBU have two main issues: working until 60, and the impact that that might have on a firefighter’s ability to have a full career and, consequentially, a full pension in the service. I have already mentioned that the normal pension age for firefighters has been 60 since 2006. That was introduced by a Labour Administration. It is the same age for members of the armed forces and the police under the reforms. More than a third of firefighters currently in the service are members of the 2006 scheme and have the expectation that they would retire at 60. A natural consequence of the 2006 scheme is that all firefighters would, in due course, have a normal pension age of 60 without any further action by the Government. No strike was called in 2006, and nothing was done by the previous Administration—nor by the national joint council, which is made up of the employers and the FBU to oversee firefighters’ terms and conditions—to ensure that firefighters would get the support needed to work until 60. It is clear that this was not a particular area of concern to either the previous Government or the FBU in 2006, but it appears that it has become one now. I want all firefighters, whichever scheme they are on, to be confident that they will be able to work until their normal pension age and achieve a full pension.
Several hon. Members
I am going to finish this point.
Older workers are vital to the fire service. They have technical knowledge and expertise, and a great knowledge of, and contacts in, their local communities. In contrast to the image of them as clapped out and not up to it, they are invaluable to the service. I want them to remain part of it. It is clear we need to address those concerns to assure people in the service that they will be taken care of if they cannot maintain their fitness and to give younger workers the understanding that they can have a full career in the service.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for reminding us that the last Government raised the age to 60. Firefighters repeatedly ask me and want assurances about what other roles will be available for them at 55. Will she provide as much reassurance as possible on that issue, about which I and many of my hon. Friends have concerns?
On that point—seeing as I have been asked to answer interventions immediately—I have expanded the terms of reference of the fitness working group to consider those work force management issues, but I shall give further details about that later.
The issue of fitness has been of personal interest to me. It is likely to be of particular concern to women in the fire service and is the most recent issue we have addressed in the changes we have made. Hon. Members will know that we have set up a working group on firefighter fitness to set out what good practice looks like and to explore the future shape of the work force, and we have consulted on putting principles in the national framework on a statutory footing to introduce protections for older workers. The consultation closed on 9 December. I tabled a written ministerial statement today, along with the proposed amendments to the framework, and we are making the necessary statutory instrument to bring it into force.
These principles were designed with the intention of ensuring that no firefighter aged 55 or over was dismissed purely as a result of losing fitness through no fault of their own. If a firefighter loses health, either physical or mental, they will be eligible for ill-health retirement, and under the final regulations these will be better than the union’s alternative scheme design for “active factors”. If they lose fitness, they must be given the opportunity and support to regain it. If they cannot, again through no fault of their own, they will be offered an alternative role or an unreduced pension. DCLG will audit compliance among fire and rescue services.
I come now to the key point raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central. The union has argued that the framework is simply guidance that can be ignored, and it has cited legal advice it has received on that point, but that advice is flawed. The national framework is not simply guidance; it is a statutory instrument, and under section 21 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 fire and rescue authorities must have regard to it in the exercise of their functions.
To ensure that the fitness principles are being implemented effectively by fire and rescue authorities, I have included in my proposals a review after three years. The union claims this is the wrong kind of regulation—
Several hon. Members
I will make some progress because this is a central point.
The union wants another kind of regulation—at this time in the pension scheme. I have explained to the union that the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 does not provide the power to put fitness or wider employment issues in the pension scheme. Without a single service, as there is in Scotland, there is no single fitness policy to refer to.
My hon. Friend is seeking to offer a guarantee to firefighters in the position she describes, but what would happen if, once this is implemented, a particular fire authority did not give that level of support to firefighters found to be unfit and did not implement the guidance she describes?
As well as putting the framework on a statutory footing, my Department will be auditing compliance. A small group of people might benefit from the protections, but many more will be thinking about their future in the service, and we need to make it clear, through the fitness group’s work on good practice and by putting the framework on a statutory footing and providing accompanying advice, that we expect fire and rescue authorities to do this.
Several hon. Members
I will make a little more progress.
Despite what the union claims, it remains the case that under the regulation agreed in Scotland, it is for the employer to consider providing an unreduced pension to a firefighter who loses their fitness. In those cases, they will have to make a judgment about whether there are “mitigating circumstances” that mean an unreduced pension should be paid. That is the same judgment that English fire and rescue authorities will make. The only difference is that, south of the border, decisions will have to be made having full regard to the fitness principles this Government have set out in the national framework—and the fitness working group will identify good practice to help fire and rescue authorities in that task.
Several hon. Members
There will, of course, be a few firefighters who cannot maintain operational fitness. In such instances, the fire and rescue authority will assess why that might be the case. If a firefighter cannot maintain operational fitness for a medical reason—it could be due to a deterioration in the joints, for instance—and that reason is permanent, they will be considered for ill-health retirement and payment of their unreduced pension. Where there is no medical reason or the reason is not permanent, Dr Williams found that the fire and rescue authorities provide remedial training and that the great majority of firefighters are able to increase their fitness levels within a few months. So we are talking about a small group of people, but it is worth remembering, as I said, that many more firefighters who may never find themselves losing capability will be reassured by the fact that those protections are in place. Those protections will encourage people to stay in the service and in the pension scheme.
As well as the work of the fitness working group, much else is happening to improve the support and focus on fitness and well-being. Funds have been made available from the recent LIBOR fines to help firefighters who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a diagnosable medical condition, so, depending on severity, individuals would be eligible for ill-health retirement and payment of an unreduced pension.
Several hon. Members
The issue of mental health is rightly being given considerable focus with an additional £4 million of the LIBOR funds being made available to Mind, the mental health charity. In the remainder of this Parliament, I will be working with women’s groups in the fire service to examine what further we can do to promote good practice on issues of direct concern to them, and I would like to place on record my thanks for the time they have already taken to meet me.
It of course remains the case that some firefighters may choose to leave the service before age 60, and the scheme facilitates that by allowing firefighters to retire early on a cost-neutral basis and, as Lord Hutton recommended, with an actuarially fair reduction to reflect the longer time the pension is likely to be paid.
Will the Minister explain which firefighters will be affected? Surely there must be a 10-year protection for existing firefighters at a certain age. What sort of protection will be provided; when is it going to kick in; when will this first affect firefighters?
We have chosen to protect those who are closest to their retirement age—everyone within 10 years of that age.
Several hon. Members
I am going to make some progress because I do not have a lot of time left.
Let me return to the issue of active factors, about which I was asked earlier. Active factors present a very uncertain early retirement calculation, as they will be very sensitive to short-term changes in inflation and earnings growth. For instance, the Government Actuary’s Department has calculated that using the actual earnings and inflation figures between September 2008 and September 2012 to set the factors would result in an early retirement reduction of about 27% at age 55 under active factors. This compares with the early retirement reduction of 21.8% under the 2015 scheme regulations—a massive improvement, of course, and almost half of what the 2006 scheme introduced. [Interruption.]
Several hon. Members
Order. The Minister is not giving way. Members must allow her—[Interruption.] Order. The House must allow the Minister to conclude her speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Given that time is short, I am going to turn to the issue of redeployment opportunities, which many Members raised. Let me be frank that the availability of other redeployment opportunities is a matter for the employers, but the situation today cannot be compared with what may be the case in 2022, just as it cannot be compared with the roles that applied a decade ago when fire and rescue services were responding to twice as many incidents. Increasingly, firefighters are doing different jobs, working more closely with their communities to prevent fire or developing more specialist rescue capabilities.
What I can say is that if firefighters are prepared to extend their roles away from those prescribed in the national joint council conditions of service—the “grey book”— more alternative roles may be possible. That in turn may allow the service to develop a more diverse work force that will benefit from the experience and skills of older workers, more women, and members of other communities who remain under-represented. I think that would be a good thing.
Will my hon. Friend give way, on that point?
Bear with me.
The fire and rescue service faces a time of change as it responds to the changing needs and priorities of the communities it serves. If it is to reach its full potential, we need its firefighters to focus on that goal and not to be distracted by industrial action, divisive negativity, scaremongering, and poor employer practice. They deserve better: they deserve better than the 2006 scheme. The new scheme provides substantially better early and flexible retirement terms, focuses more on good practice in fitness, and pays more regard to supporting a more diverse work force, and women in particular.
Will the Minister give way?
No. The right hon. Gentleman has had his say.
The regulations that I have laid are fit for purpose, and follow the recommendations of both Lord Hutton and Tony Williams. They are enhanced by the changes in the national framework for fire and rescue for England, and underpinned by the working group facilitated by the chief fire and rescue adviser.
I understand that firefighters may not want to work longer than they planned to, but, although I have ensured that those who are closest to their normal retirement age will be fully protected and will experience no change, not all of them can be immune to public service reforms that are affecting every other public service work force. The firefighters’ pension schemes have been reformed according to exactly the same principles as other public service pension schemes, and the 2015 firefighters scheme will remain one of the best.
Members will be aware that if the regulations—which follow three years of negotiations—fall today, no scheme will be in place after March 2015. The existing schemes will be closed under the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 on 13 March 2015, and if a new scheme and transitional protections for the old schemes are not put in place shortly, firefighters will not have access to a pension scheme from 1 April 2015, and those who have protections will have lost them.
Members will be able to express their thoughts about what action should be taken in future years, but, for all the reasons that I have given, it is vital that these regulations stand.
I would normally want to say that the Minister had said something with which I agreed, but I have to say now that never in my time in the House have I heard a Minister try to flannel in this way by simply reading a speech without taking interventions even from her own side. I know that that has sent firefighters, and the public in general, the message that the Government are split on this issue. Many Back Benchers who are present today would vote with us if they were not on a three-line whip. I hope that many of them will see that this is the one occasion on which they might decide that it is worth rebelling, because the issue is really important.
As one who has been involved with the Fire Brigades Union for many years, I feel that the union has a very fair case. This is not really about money. We have seen the settlement in Scotland, the settlement in Wales and the settlement in Northern Ireland, all of which have involved the same financial costs. Something very strange has happened. The union was negotiating fairly, with honesty and decency, and tried to secure a settlement for months. When a new Minister arrived, the Minister and the union met time after time. I could quote plenty of things that the Minister said that suggested that movement was going to happen, but I will not do so, because I know that many of my colleagues want to speak. Suddenly, in October, everything stopped. I do not necessarily blame the Minister, because I know that Ministers cannot always do what they would like to do, but someone, somewhere, prevented the negotiations from continuing.
Common sense could have sorted out an issue that is vitally important to the public. We can all sleep easy in our beds at night because we know that the firefighters are out there ready to protect us. We have seen what they have done when there have been terrible tragedies in this country. We saw it, for instance, when a helicopter crashed in my constituency recently. I simply do not understand how, in this day and age, when every other part of the United Kingdom has been able to secure a settlement that is fair and within the cost constraints, we cannot have the same here today.
So I say to all Members that it is wrong that this should have had to happen. The Opposition brought it, but the Government should have brought this and allowed this regulation to be voted on. I understand that many Government Members will not want to rebel and will feel they have to be loyal, but I say this to them: “This is a matter where you really should examine your conscience. Go and talk to your firefighters in your area. Listen to them, and they will be telling you today, ‘These regulations could be revoked. We could go back and get a settlement long in time, and get it in place before 1 April’”. I hope all Members of all parties will join together to support the FBU, and to publicly support the firefighters and the public in what they want to see: a decent deal for firefighters.
I want to make one point before I begin my very brief speech: if we ever needed a case illustrating why there should be English votes for English MPs, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) has made it throughout this debate. This has nothing to do with firefighters in Scotland, and I fail to see why the hon. Gentleman constantly tried to derail the Minister.
However, it is important in this debate that we realise the role that firefighters play. We have not had a 9/11 in this country, but if we ever did, we would be aware, as would the general public, of the worth of our firefighters. I make that point to begin with because some of the representations I have heard are, “Firefighters are now fitting smoke alarms, talking to children in schools, and not fighting as many fires as they used to.” I want a firefighting force that is ready and able to do a job should it need to be done—should a catastrophe, God forbid, ever hit our country.
I am delighted to hear that the Minister is talking to women’s groups, but I ask her to clarify whether the female firefighters she is talking to are members of the fire authority or have been put forward by the fire authority, or are they women who are actually serving on the front line? There is a world of difference between the local fire authorities and the firefighters who have their feet on the ground and carry the equipment. I am a woman, and I have been to my fire station, Ampthill, and I could not pick up the equipment. I am not unfit, but I could never in a million years even lift that equipment. I am 57, and I realise that my fitness has deteriorated to a degree, which I have had no control over. I would like to know what those women on the front line feel they are actually able to deal with and work with.
The lives and futures of many firefighters and their families and children depend on this settlement and they deserve better representation than they have had. Some of the aggressive rhetoric, dialogue and language I have been subjected to on Twitter—and I support the firefighters —has not been helpful to their cause. It has certainly not been helpful when trying to get other MPs to support them. That aggression and language does not help at all.
I also ask the Minister to respond to the following point for me. I know that it is the fire authority that decides what the levels of fitness should be and who takes responsibility, but in my experience too many members of the local fire authority do not even know about the job of firefighting. They do not consult active firefighters and they do not even visit local fire stations, so I have no idea how they can understand the role—what is expected of firefighters and their changing role. When the Minister and her working party are looking at the fitness assessments and how they are applied, will she consider looking at the possibility of local firefighters working in local stations becoming part of the process, rather than having a top-down process whereby fire authorities dictate to their work force?
We have the cost-neutral alternative in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so will the Minister tell us why it works there and is not considered here? I know those countries have probably less than half the number of firefighters in the UK. A lot of people have already asked about this, so could the Minister give us more information? If the scheme is working in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, why is it not applicable to the UK? What can we do to make it applicable to the UK?
I believe that the Minister has good intentions, and I understand that not everything is within her power, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has just said. I know, and the firefighters know, that she is doing her best. They also know that the age of 60 was brought in by the previous Administration, who also ducked bringing in the reforms that were necessary because of the changing demographics, which came in like a train. Labour Members chose not to address that issue, so their faux outrage just does not carry water—
Several hon. Members
Order. The hon. Lady is about to conclude.
I am, and I would like to conclude by saying that if the Minister could answer my questions, I and my firefighters in Bedfordshire would be very grateful.
Let us try and get to some of the facts. The people who did the medical assessments said quite clearly that almost none of the women assessed would be able to work after the age of 55, and that 90% of the men would be unable to work after that age. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made that point earlier, but it was not mentioned at all by the Minister when she was asked what she was going to do. She said nothing about reducing the figure from 42 to 35, but to do so would be a classic way of getting round the wrong that would be done by getting unfit people to do work that should be done by fit people.
We have an agreement in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but we will have no agreement in this country unless people agree to go without 22% of their pension. The figure in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is only 9%, and the unions agreed to that after proper negotiations, but those on the Tory Front Bench clearly do not want such an agreement in this country. People are also talking as though the contributions come from nowhere, but the people who are paying into their pensions are paying at least £4,000 a year. They are paying 14% of their wages. They are paying £61 a month more now than they were three years ago, despite the fact that they have not had a decent pay rise in the past four years.
We have been here before, in the early 1980s and the 1990s when we were dealing with cuts in local government and thousands of people went out of the back door on ill-health retirement as a way of ameliorating the effects of redundancies. The difference then was that the money was there to do it. It is clear that the squeeze on councils and fire authorities today will not allow people to be able to go in that way. The Government keep talking about redeployment opportunities. I would love the Minister to explain all this to the fire service in Tyne and Wear, where we are facing a 35% budget cut. The part of the service laughingly known as the back-room chunk of that represents 17% of the budget. We are going to have to find twice as much money as those back-room costs, which is ludicrous.
My hon. Friend is describing cuts that are very similar to those being implemented across Merseyside and all the metropolitan boroughs. One of the many questions that the Minister failed to answer is: where are these non-operational, back-room jobs for firefighters to go into if they do not pass the fitness test?
Exactly. When the former fire Minister, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is in his place, was asked by the Tyne and Wear fire chief how he was supposed to implement the changes, he was told to “get on and manage it”. There has been cut after cut after cut.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, I must finish my speech.
I will make one last point. In the past few weeks, 24 million households in this country have had a tax receipt showing a breakdown of exactly where in the public sector their taxes have been spent. I ask the Government to do something more tonight. After the vote, I want them to send out to those 24 million households a copy of today’s Hansard, so that, somewhere down the line, if one of those firefighters up in the Public Gallery dies when they should not have been tackling a fire, or if one of our constituents dies while being rescued by someone who should not have been doing the job, people will know who to point the finger at.
Several hon. Members
Order. I tried to make the time limits on speeches voluntary but it is not really working, so we shall have to have a time limit of three minutes if everyone is to have a chance to get in.
The time available does not allow me to spend time discussing the value we attach to the fire service or the issues that arise because the previous Government introduced the age limit of 60, but there is a central issue—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
No, in my three minutes I am going to make an important point—there is a central point to make. The Minister’s written statement today states:
“These principles…will ensure that no firefighter faces a situation where they are forced to retire without access to a fair pension where they lose fitness through no fault of their own.
I do not doubt her sincerity in asserting that that is what she believes should happen, but what I am still doubtful about, and what I still want to hear more about, is how we ensure that it does happen and that if a particular fire authority does not apply those principles, some action is taken to protect the individual affected. I envisage a situation in which one or two fire authorities do not carry out the letter or the spirit of this framework and I want to know what happens to the individuals in those cases. When people are as close as I am to Scotland—at the border—they look over that border, and firefighters see clearer, firmer protection on the other side. So I would like the Minister to give me clearer assurance as to how she ensures this happens. Merely stating that the framework is part of a statutory framework does not tell me how I can be sure that that firefighter can be protected.
Other firefighters are also affected adversely even if we sort that issue out. For example, a man who has served for 32 years and who had hoped to retire at 50 —he is under the previous scheme—will not now be able to do so. There are also people who will be worse off if the kind of changes that have been proposed are made, for example to assist those retiring at 55, 56 or 57 with a 12% rather than a 22% reduction. But members of the FBU have accepted that it might be reasonable to help that particular group. My primary concern is for the firefighters who, given a lack of non-operational jobs, find they are losing their job and do not know how to enforce what the Minister has said tonight.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). This is a simple issue but it has been complicated by today’s written ministerial statement. I do not have a declarable interest, but I should point out that, as a former firefighter, I was a member of the firemen’s pension scheme and I served with the London fire brigade from 1974 to 1997.
Various comments have been made about the “generosity” of the firefighters’ pension scheme, but I have to point out to the Minister that the contributions to the scheme were hiked in the late ‘70s to 11% for firefighters to cover for partners and children who were being left because firefighters were being killed and kids were being orphaned. The second point to make is that the previous rules the Minister keeps referring to, requiring compulsory retirement at 55 or after 30 years’ service, were changed to allow and then to require firefighters to stay to 60. That was done on the basis of alternative jobs or an appropriate pension for those not making the standard.
Two points are important to note. First, firefighters now pay 14.2% towards their pension, so this is not a cheap scheme. Secondly, and crucially, the alternative employment is not there. That is due partly to general reductions in public expenditure, because of austerity, and partly to the success of the service in helping to reduce the number of fires, which, alongside safer buildings, smoke detectors, sprinklers, fewer smokers, legislation and so on, has led to smaller fire brigades. The alternative jobs just do not exist. So that is the first problem for the Government.
The second problem is on the fitness and health question. The Government commissioned Dr Tony Williams to make an assessment and he said that two thirds might not be able to make the cut. The Minister challenged that, but we need more information on how that could possibly be the case. Under these rules, firefighters, through no fault of their own, risk losing a large amount of their pension that not only have they worked and paid for, but most of us would say they are entitled to expect.
I come back to the point about two thirds of firefighters not making the cut. If we have a proposal here that two thirds of them are going to lose up to a quarter of their pension, is there anybody with a fair mind who would think that is okay?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely appropriate point. Of course firefighters are not perfect, and no group of workers is, not even MPs—most people would say especially not MPs. But there is nothing more galling for firefighters than to hear Ministers and MPs singing their praises for their emergency skills and then treating them like this. Many Government Members recognise that that is not right, and many Liberal Democrats have signed the early-day motion.
The Government have a chance to show decency, common sense and fairness. The public want to know why, if the devolved Assemblies can reach agreement on the matter—the Minister said that that is not the case, but Members from Northern Ireland said that it is —firefighters in England cannot have the same deal. I hope that the Government relent on the matter. If they do not, I hope that there are enough Members on the Government Benches who will abstain or vote against their party to ensure that these regulations are revoked.
I have four quick questions for the Front-Bench team. First, in her written ministerial statement, the Minister says that section 22 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 could be used. In how many instances has that section been used by a Secretary of State? Secondly, she said that fire authorities in the devolved regions can initiate retirement, and that those initiated retirements are paid for by the Government, so why is that not happening in England? Thirdly, she says that the framework makes that not just advisory, but statutory. Will she put that in the Library of the House, because that is not the legal advice that our firefighters are getting? Fourthly, she says that firefighters would see a reduction in their pension of 21%. Does she think that that is the way to treat our fire brigade?
All of us elected to Parliament bring with us the memories of our experiences before we became MPs. For me, one such experience is of having lived in New York at the start of the century—specifically of having lived there on 9/11. That day, 341 of the 2,977 people who died were firefighters. They died running into buildings to help other people get out. The firefighters in New York were heroes, and we have every expectation that our own firefighters in the same situation would act heroically as well. We have a special responsibility today to get these regulations right. So, how are we doing? The answer must be: not very well.
We start with the shadow Secretary of State’s speech. It was very nice of him to quote my question and to see him getting up to speed on this issue, but it is a little bit too late in the day. It was not clear whether his speech was more about the specifics of the regulation or, since that postcard from Rochester and Strood, about the Labour party trying to reconnect to the working people that it has left behind. Who better than the brother of a wannabe viscount to lead that charge? These issues are substantive. If changing the retirement age is a substantive issue, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman knows what he is doing. If, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the age of 60 is incorrect, what we will find is that we begin to undo the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 and let loose a £1 trillion liability on the public purse. I do not know what the intent of the shadow Secretary of State is. I do not know what the intent of the Leader of the Opposition is. On controlling energy prices, taxes on homes and pensions, the right hon. Gentleman is a man who likes to throw snowballs at the sun to claim that he creates Christmas, so that he can set false expectations for people.
Let me turn now to the Minister. In response to my question, she said that she would ensure that firefighters who failed the fitness test would not lose their jobs. She said that that guarantee could be given within the national framework agreement. The Local Government Association has clearly said that it would not be compelled to comply with it. That does not sound like a convincing guarantee, does it? I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that she must make this guarantee a “must”, not a “may be” or a “trust me” but a “must”. We must ensure that we give that guarantee to our firefighters to do them justice for their heroism on our behalf.
Is it not an absolute outrage that we have only 90 minutes in this zombie Parliament for such an important debate? This matter should have been worthy of at least a day’s debate.
The men and women in the fire and rescue service do a tremendous and dangerous job. We are talking about not just their pensions and whether they finish at 55 or 60, but the safety and health of our constituents. I do not want a 60-year-old man or woman climbing up a ladder, expecting to pull me—16 stone and 6 ft 1—out of a window and climbing back down the ladder again. If there is anybody here who thinks that is the right thing to do, they know how to vote tonight. We must treat this matter extremely seriously. We are not talking about a normal job here. It is a job for young, healthy people who keep themselves fit throughout their whole career. They should not be doing this job in the twilight of their career at 60 years of age. For heaven’s sake, everybody knows that! It is no good trying to deny it. We want young men and women rescuing people in our communities.
The matter has been sorted out in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Why on earth can we not sort it out here in England? It is purely about ideology. Who do we want to see when there is a bomb attack, a problem in the tube station, an explosion or a fire? We want to see the fire and rescue brigade.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Northern Ireland. Clearly, the Northern Ireland Assembly understand that there is a physical issue and recognise what people are able to do at the age of 55 and 60. They have also secured their pension fund. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that whereas Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have accepted the union’s view, here, in England, the supreme example of what is being done elsewhere cannot be done?
That is the very point I am trying to make. It is common sense. We are asking the Minister: why not accept that here in England, when everywhere else in the UK has? The answer has everything to do with ideology. There is no one who wants this change. The general public are opposed to it; a large number of MPs are opposed to it; the workers are opposed to it; and the medical experts are emphatic in their opposition. They say that it is not right to suggest that people aged 60 can do this sort of work. No one, apart from this Government, supports this measure. We want the Government to reconsider. We want our firefighters to have the same as the firefighters in Northern Ireland: retirement at 55 without any financial penalty. They are losing 21.8% of their pension if they retire at the age of 55. It is an absolute outrage. MPs would not accept that, so why should members of the Fire Brigades Union, people who support our communities? There are no payment guarantees. We want law, not guidance. It is not good enough to say at the Dispatch Box and in a ministerial statement put out on the day of the debate that everything in the garden is rosy. We owe the members of the fire and rescue service a huge debt of gratitude. But gratitude does not put food on the table and feed the kids. I salute the dedication, commitment and professionalism of the men and women in our tremendous service. Let us get our act together tonight, revoke the statutory instrument and negotiate a fair deal for firefighters.
As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I speak as a member of a fire service family. She has been very kind in meeting me on several occasions to answer my many questions. My main concerns are: remaining operationally fit to the age of 60; the absence of redeployment opportunities; and the effect on pension entitlement for those firefighters who are unable to remain operationally fit.
Firefighting is a physical occupation that requires a high level of fitness to undertake tasks safely—safely for the individual, their colleagues and members of the public. The Williams review estimates that two thirds of firefighters between the ages of 55 and 60 are below the recommended fitness level, meaning not that they are overweight but that that age group has naturally occurring age-related conditions such as arthritis, worn joints and many others. Firefighters are interdependent in dangerous situations, and most aged 55 to 60 are not as fit as those half their age. When they go into a building that is on fire and full of smoke, they have to wear breathing apparatus, and there might be people who have to be brought out to safety. A watch is only as strong as its weakest link.
I stress to my hon. Friend, whom I know is very concerned about these issues, not least because of her connections, that a great many firefighters are already required to work until 60. At the moment, older firefighters have no protections. We are introducing a measure that will improve the current situation and ensure that if there is no operational role for someone to go into, they will get not just a pension but an unreduced pension.
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments.
Operational fitness has been a major concern in agreeing future employment and pension arrangements. I have read in briefing material that two types of ill health retirement attract immediate access to a reduced pension, but there is concern that another, wider group of firefighters will not meet the new fitness standards and will be deemed not competent, but not permanently unfit, and therefore will not eligible for an ill health pension. If there are no redeployment opportunities—given that, according to the FBU, only five fire authorities have 16 redeployment opportunities between them at the moment, that seems likely—they worry that they will be at risk of dismissal without access to their pension until they reach the normal retirement age. It is the “No job, no pension” spectre that they fear. I hope my hon. Friend can say something about that in her concluding comments.
Will my hon. Friend also please clarify the effect of the revised pension scheme on the following groups of firefighters who are no longer operationally fit: those aged 55 to 60 with a diagnosable medical condition, whether job related or not; those aged 55 to 60 who have failed the fitness standards, but without a diagnosable medical condition; and those two groups under the age of 55? Will they receive a full or reduced salary if redeployed? Will they receive a full or reduced pension if retired? Will pensions be paid immediately on retirement, or will they have to wait until the normal retirement age?
Will my hon. Friend do more to encourage fire authorities to reach a consistent standard, so that firefighters across the country know what to expect with regard to their pensions if they are deemed no longer competent to continue? It would help to avoid future strikes, which nobody wants, firefighters least of all—
Perhaps I can get to the nub of the matter: lowering fitness standards to ensure that firefighters can work to the age of 60 is reckless in the extreme. No responsible Government would do that, because there is no doubt that it would result in somebody dying. The Government should think again. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), is on the record as saying:
“The government believes a solution can be reached, but not under the shadow of industrial action, which only serves to damage firefighters’ good standing with the public. By calling more strikes during an open consultation the FBU leadership has once again shown it is not serious about finding a resolution.”
I thoroughly disagree. Reputational damage is indeed being caused, but not to our highly regarded and respected firefighters; it is the Government’s reputation that is being trashed.
Firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding job. Firemen and women risk their lives rescuing people from burning buildings and endanger themselves in hazardous situations in order to keep us safe. Most people agree that, given their commitment and the risks they take, they should be entitled to a fair and workable pension scheme. It is the Government’s standing with the public, not the firefighters’, that is being damaged by this shambolic pensions dispute.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is so depressing is not only the content of this debate, but the spirit in which it is being conducted? The Government are losing faith with the firefighters and essentially blackmailing them. That is what is in front of them: a blackmail. They are being told to accept it or leave it.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. Firefighters have been presented with a Hobson’s choice: to continue working in a dangerous job beyond the point at which the body is capable, or to have their pensions starkly reduced if they opt for retirement. Worse still, the Minister has said today that if firefighters do not back down, they will have no cover whatsoever. What sort of a way is that to treat such valued public servants?
I have been contacted by a constituent, a 45-year-old firefighter. Under the pension scheme in place when he joined, he could have retired at 50 as he would have accrued more than 25 years’ service. However, the retirement age has been raised to 55, and because full pension protection will be given only to firefighters within 10 years of the normal pension age, from 2016 his pension will now be only partially protected. The situation is blatantly unfair to my constituent, who has paid into his pension scheme since joining the fire brigade and has always been led to believe that his retirement year was 2020. He feels that he has been discriminated against on the basis of age, and on the balance of evidence I find it difficult to disagree with that conclusion.
Some firefighters will be penalised for their age. Although someone older with fewer years of service who is within 10 years of the normal retirement age will be fully protected, my constituent and many others in a similar situation will not. I am sure that officials and legal teams have applied their collective minds to the application of the Equality Act 2010, because it seems to me that this flies in the face of the spirit of the legislation, which is that workers should not be discriminated against on the basis of their age.
Our firefighters routinely put themselves in danger in their line of work. They save lives and keep us safe. We should value our fire services and the brave men and women who keep them running. The minimum we should expect is for the Government to ensure that services remains workable, keeping firefighters and the public as safe as possible. Those who commit themselves to such a physically demanding career should have a fair pension scheme and should expect to be able to retire in security. Firefighters demonstrate great dedication to others and real determination in their line of work. I suggest that the Government take a lesson from our firefighters, take note of the points raised in this debate and return to the negotiating table with a realistic and fair proposal.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), and I certainly agree with his tribute to firefighters. I find myself in a very difficult position tonight in deciding how to vote on this statutory instrument. The very first debate I ever had in Westminster Hall was on Rushden fire station, which the Conservatives were fighting to keep open and the Labour county council wanted to close. In Northamptonshire we have an excellent fire and rescue service. In some respects it leads the whole of Europe. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) want to intervene? I will tell the hon. Gentleman, while I am at it, that Tom Pursglove, the excellent Conservative candidate for Corby, and I are today launching a campaign for more fire cover for north Northamptonshire. We will go up there tonight and—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Corby want to intervene?
Turning to firefighters’ pensions, there is one issue that seems to cut through all of this. I have spoken with the chief fire officer and the FBU representatives and seen firefighters on the picket line, and I went to see Green Watch in Wellingborough. In all these disputes, we should ignore the FBU and the employers and listen to the actual firefighters and what they tell us. The one problem is that firefighters are genuinely worried that when they get to 55 they might, through no fault of their own, lose their pension. If the Minister could give me an assurance that those firefighters would be redeployed or—
I am very happy to give those assurances—[Interruption.] We have done that.
Order. I want to hear the answer, and I am sure the rest of us will gain from what the Minister has to say.
If someone fails a fitness test through no fault of their own and they do not qualify for ill health retirement, they will get a redeployed role or an unreduced pension. That will be put on a statutory footing in the national framework—a full, unreduced pension, if not an alternative role.
Having heard the words of the Minister, I think the whole House can now support the statutory instrument.
I am the secretary of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. Firefighters expect the House to rise to the occasion. This is not a party political issue.
In 2006, when the previous Government introduced the new pension scheme with later retirement at 60, I opposed it, but at that time all those in the old pension scheme were given a guarantee and an assurance that they would remain in that scheme and it would be protected. Those coming into the new scheme were told that if there was a problem with regard to their fitness, there would be alternative jobs for them. Those alternative jobs did not exist. We identified only 15 over that whole period. Since then we have lost 5,000 firefighter posts. In addition, the alternative jobs that existed have been reclassified from grey book to green book, which means cuts in pay.
The firefighters therefore feel betrayed. They were given assurances, they signed up to the scheme, they entered a pension scheme as a legal agreement, they paid their contributions, and now they are seeing their pension put at risk, even those in the new scheme. All they are asking for is for the House to rise to the occasion tonight, revoke the regulations and allow negotiations to take place. Negotiations have worked in all the other countries in the UK; they can work here as well.
Our firefighters are anxious, first, that, as has been reported, they will lose about 21% of their pension entitlement. Secondly, the assurances that the guidelines will be put on a statutory footing simply mean that fire authorities must have regard to those guidelines; they will not be enforced on those authorities. That means that firefighters could, if they are not fit enough, lose their job and at the same time have their pensions cut considerably. That is what they are fearful of, and we would all be fearful of that, wouldn’t we?
The other issue that firefighters have brought up is the fitness standards they have to meet. If they cannot meet them, they are forced into that situation. They will therefore not be providing the level of service needed to keep our people safe. I urge Members to support the motion. This is not a party political debate. Vote tonight to enable the Government to have time to come back and negotiate a settlement.
A few years ago there was a peak in the number of firefighters who died protecting our country. I met their families. We have a duty of honour to the firefighters to protect them tonight, just as they protect our community.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).
15 December 2014
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details