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The Financial Times
Little hope of Firefighter strike breakthrough
Yesterday the nearly 40,000 firefighters in England and Wales went on strike for the second time this year, with more industrial action to come. It is the first national firefighters' strike in a decade, and there has so far been little chance of breakthrough.
The cause of the strike are government plans to increase the normal pension age for firefighters to 60, from 55; as well as increasing their pension contributions and moving to a career average system rather than final salary scheme. That would mean that they would be unable to claim their full pension until the age of 60; any earlier and they would be subject to a penalty to reflect that they are claiming the pension for longer.
The government has conceded considerable transitional protections - nearly two thirds will be fully or partially protected from the changes - and says that the changes are necessary in order to make public sector pensions fairer and more sustainable in the long term. Even with the changes, firefighters, like other public sector workers, will have access to a level of generosity and certainty unavailable to the majority of private sector workers.
The Fire Brigades Union - the FBU - opposes the increase to 60 but has been reluctant to take strike action. The proposed 'final settlement' was published nearly a year ago, and the planned first set of strike action in July this year was called off after a last minute offer from the government. But three issues have undermined chances of a settlement.
First and foremost is the issue of fitness to work. The FBU has claimed that the increase in the pension age could lead to firefighters losing their jobs between 55 and 60 and being forced to claim their pension early - with a penalty - because they do not meet the basic fitness standards. They argue that around 2/3 of firefighters will end up not meeting those standards and being at risk - a claim disputed by the government who argue that the majority of firefighters can maintain those standards with 'recommended physical activity'.
Second and related are the penalties applied to a pension to early retirement to reflect the fact that someone will be claiming their pensions for longer. The FBU claims that they are unduly harsh - with a retiree at 55 earning a pension worth just 79% of what it would have been at age 60.
Finally is the issue of contribution rates, which have increased for all public sector workers. The FBU has argued that it is unfair to implement such as significant change at the same time as significant increases in the contribution rate.
So far the government has held firm on the first and the third of these issues. It made an offer on the second, offering a much more generous early retirement scheme; but it has since withdrawn that offer after strike action took place. Underlying that is a concern about cost: it is unclear how many firefighters may not meet fitness requirements between 55 and 60 and therefore how much protection would end up costing. One recent report said that in the worst case up to 93% of firefighters could miss standards by age 60; but that in the best case it would be as low as 23%.
For now, the prospect of a deal seems distant. And yet the keen eyed will have noticed that it is only English and Welsh firefighters on strike. The Scottish firefighters union has not called strike action at all - instead having reached a negotiated settlement on two of the three issues above. A deal was and therefore is possible, but we will not know for years how much it will end up costing the Scottish government.