I brought forward a motion at Gloucestershire Full Council yesterday to highlight the lack of meaningful discussion between the Government and the FBU. After 3 years the FBU have not been taken seriously on the matter of their pensions, particularly the raising of the retirement age to 60. This motion asked the County Council to write to the Government to ask them to re-engage with the FBU. However, the leader of the Liberal Democrats ambushed the motion, calling for an amendment to take out the facts, and merely “note” the strikes. More damning, this amendment called upon the FBU to stop striking. This appalling attack on workers rights was simply unacceptable and made to blame the FBU for the strikes, when it is clearly the Governments lack of willingness to properly engage. The Lib Dem amendment got through because, unsurprisingly, it was backed by their coalition friends.
In my speech, I highlighted that this is not a fight between the County Council as the employer and the FBU, but between the government and the FBU. It has been ongoing for over 3 years and as a Fire Authority we have ensured that the strikes are unhindered, whilst ensuring as far as possible that our residents are kept safe. However, the lack of meaningful engagement by the government with the FBU has led to further and more prolonged strikes. It is my belief that on behalf of our residents, and our employees the County Council needs to send a message to the Government to take the representations by the FBU seriously.
I have been out on the strikes, both supporting those on the Picket lines, and also supporting the contingency operations across the county. Indeed, my idea of a good time last New Year’s Eve was to visit all the standby stations and talk to firefighters. Both on the picket line and in contingency, the message was the same, our firefighters don’t want to strike, but they are concerned that not only are they being betrayed, but also the residents they protect are also being betrayed.
A common line heard is “everyone has to work until 67, why shouldn’t firefighters work longer”. But when you then discussing what we are asking our firefighters to do, attitudes quickly change. In essence, they are there for when we, one way or another, screw up. Their role encompasses physical endurance, Quick onset and offset of adrenaline based physical exertion. The combination of Smoke and heat are exhausting and combined with the use of breathing apparatus makes it a mentally as well as physically exhausting.
We have to remember also that there is no such thing as a desk job either. In comparable jobs, the police, the military, those who have developed great experience are developed into more desk based roles. This is not an option within our Fire service, they are all operational fire-fighters.
Also the health risks, just for doing the job are above and beyond what I would expect to suffer sat at my desk, including
• Cancer especially testicular cancer, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
• Burns and Smoke cause a total of 34% of all injuries to firefighters
• Falls from collapsing floors and roofs, or or off ladders.
• Strains, firefighters carry a lot of kit to operate as safely as possible.
• Heart Disease – 45% of firefighters die from Cardiovascular events, compared to 15% in any other job.
Research has shown that as the fire fighter gets older; their arteries will increase their reaction to the environment, and increase their risk of heart attack with each shout they attend and therefore by forcing them to work for longer, we are, without a doubt, increasing the risk of making that 45% of deaths by heart attack a much higher statistic.
This Government says that these are the most generous pensions in the public sector. I agree and a good thing too. How many other jobs in the public sector ask our employees to put themselves, knowingly and repeatedly, in harm’s way on a daily basis, even the military have rules about time spent in danger zones. But let’s not forget that the generous pension is heavily contributed to by each and every firefighter. But the big issue is the fact that we are changing the agreement for those who expected to retire at 55. The financial impact upon fire fighters needs to be understood too, with the raising of the Retirement age, if a firefighter was to have to retire due to fitness at 55, they would lose 45% of their pension and what is left would be taxed by 55%.
I support the stance of the FBU, not only because it is backed by research from the British Heart Foundation amongst others, but because it’s the right thing do to, for Fire Fighters and for our community.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, who has meaningfully negotiated with the FBU, has recently determined that 60 is too old, and has proposed that 55 be the pensionable age for their firefighters. IN this they join Scotland in coming to a sensible and agreed resolution.
Its also worth noting, even though the discussions have been going on for over 3 years, and strikes have only recently happened, the FBU have still not planned further strikes to enable more talks to happen. The Government is just waiting to steamroller their own plans through in April!
I am disappointed that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jeremy Hilton, decided to attack the FBU and fire-fighters themselves, accusing them of as they get closer to retirement of letting their own personal fitness go and not committing to the job, and if they were allowed to retire at 55 on full pension, then it would be abused. I was gobsmacked. For someone who purports to have a keen interest in the Fire Service, and is going to be the lead for the Fire Service in the LGA, this is a disgusting slur on our fire-fighters. It is clear that he simply doesn’t actually talk to our fire-fighters in any meaningful way, or actually has any respect for workers rights.
I didn’t expect the Conservatives to support this motion, but I didn’t expect the Liberal Democrats, with a leader who is keen to be involved in anything to do with the Fire Service, to stab them in the back quite so viciously! It seems that the Labour Party is the only party who care and will stand up for the rights of our heroes!