Firefighters strike in pensions row
Firefighters have walked out on strike for the weekend in their bitter row with the Government over pensions, ahead of a series of firework displays across the country.
Members of the Fire Brigades Union in England left their stations at 6pm yesterday and will not return until 6pm on Tuesday, the evening before Bonfire Night.
Picket lines were mounted outside fire stations, and will continue throughout the next few days.
Fire brigades again launched contingency plans, including hiring contract staff to cover for striking firefighters, but the public were warned to be extra vigilant, especially if they attend a firework event.
The Government has been accused of showing "contempt" for public sector workers amid continued deadlock in the long-running dispute in England.
The West Yorkshire brigade warned that the service and the public will be left in a "vulnerable position", telling people to take extra care to ensure their own safety, while the London brigade said it might not attend rubbish or small grass fires or help anyone shut in a lift during the strike.
The FBU hit back at Government statements that firefighters will continue to receive one of the best pension packages of any worker, even after reforms to their pension scheme.
General secretary Matt Wrack said: "We have a Government of millionaires who are wrecking the pensions of firefighters and other public sector workers while the real scandal is that their own pensions are by far the most generous anywhere in the public sector.
"This is a case of those at the top getting more while everyone else is robbed blind. Firefighters are sickened by the Government's 'snouts in the trough' approach to this issue.
"How can it be remotely fair that the Prime Minister, already a millionaire, enjoys a far greater subsidy from his employer in absolute and proportional terms than a firefighter who is earning less than £30,000 a year? It is sickening hypocrisy."
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "Once again the Government is showing its contempt for public service workers. Evidence warns that raising the normal retirement age for firefighters would lead to older fighters facing no job and no pension after years of good service.
"This same evidence has already led to concessions being made in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - but the Westminster Government has chosen to walk away from the negotiating table.
"We are very concerned about the risks to firefighters, and those who rely on the fire service, when firefighters are forced to stay in frontline service until they reach the age of 60."
Industrial action has been averted in Wales as a result of a "significant" change of direction by the Welsh Government, said the FBU.
A series of strikes have been held over the past 18 months in protest at changes to pensions and the retirement age, which the union claimed could lead to firefighters losing their jobs if they fail fitness tests in their late 50s.
The Government has confirmed its plans to reform firefighters' pensions, saying the scheme has been refined in response to consultations. A statement said the average firefighter retiring at the age of 50 today is expected to live and draw a pension for 37 years after a 30-year career.
The Firefighters' Pension Scheme is the most expensive in the public sector and is forecast to have a cashflow deficit of almost £600 million by 2018/19, said the statement, adding: "Taxpayers cannot be expected to meet all of these costs."
Fiona Twycross, Labour's fire spokeswoman on the London Assembly, said: "It is deeply disappointing that we have got to this position, but it seems clear the Government is set on escalating this dispute."
Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt said: "All fire and rescue authorities have robust and well-tested plans in place that include back-up support if needed. Public safety is the primary focus and if anyone needs emergency assistance, they should dial 999.
"It is regrettable that the Fire Brigades Union has announced this strike action, which is unnecessary and the aim of which is unclear.
"Pension regulations were laid in Parliament on Tuesday after extensive consultation and amendment.
"The Government recognises the role firefighters play in keeping the public safe and has worked hard to give them one of the most generous pensions in the public sector. We are also consulting on changes to ensure that no firefighter aged 55 or over will face a risk of being left without a job or a good pension.
"Under the new scheme, nearly three-quarters of firefighters will see no change in their pension age in April 2015.
"A firefighter who earns £29,000 will still be able to retire after a full career aged 60 and get a £19,000-a-year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. An equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.
"Our thanks are with those who are working to keep the public safe over this period."
Roy Wilsher, the Chief Fire Officers Association's director of operations, said: "When the emergency services are called to attend unsafe bonfires or avoidable fire vandalism, it means that operational resources may have to be diverted away from life-threatening accidents and emergencies, with potentially tragic consequences.
"Fire, fireworks and alcohol can be a very dangerous combination at garden and street parties. This year we want bonfire night to be one of the safest on record and therefore we are asking members of the public who are thinking of holding their own bonfire or firework display to consider attending an organised display instead.
"These events are generally safer and more spectacular and therefore more enjoyable for friends and families."
The union said it had been told by the Scottish government that it will further improve its pension proposals allowing firefighters to retire from age 55 with a "much more acceptable" pension reduction. Firefighters in Scotland are not involved in strike action this weekend due to an earlier improved proposal that had already guaranteed firefighters would not be sacked for getting older.
FBU general secretary Mr Wrack said: "While we welcome the further movement in Scotland we are also astounded that ministers in England would rather see firefighters on strike than negotiate properly with us. Look at what can be achieved when both sides want an end to this dispute.
"Everything we have agreed in Scotland is within the cost restrictions imposed by Westminster but even then they have simply said no.
"We are accused of being irresponsible but we cannot make a deal with a government that just doesn't want to negotiate."
The Metropolitan Police in London said they will escort fire engines to and from scenes, and police strike activity but will not respond to fires.
Commander Dave Musker said: "The MPS is here to protect the public; we do not have the training or capability to deal with fires.
"The police role at the scene of a fire is to facilitate the other emergency services, to enable them to do their job. Police officers are not trained firefighters; however, their primary concern is to save lives, and any officer in this situation will use their judgement to decide whether a rescue attempt can be made without increasing the risk to their own or other people's lives."