Firefighters began a 24 hour strike today in the latest walkout of a three-year row with the government over pensions.
The government wants to raise the retirement age for all firefighters from 55 to 60 at the same time as increasing their pension contributions, plans which the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) say are 'unfair and unaffordable', and could lead to older firefighters failing fitness tests. As is standard practice in industrial disputes, the government disagrees, saying the strike is 'disrupting constructive discussions'.
So what kind of pension deal do firefighters currently get? Well, the latest pension proposal actually only applies to the two-thirds of firefighters who are in the 1992 Firefighters' Pension Scheme (FPS) and currently have a retirement age of 55. Anyone who joined the service after 2006 is enrolled in the New Firefighters' Pension scheme (NFPS) which has a retirement age of 60.
FPS members' pot accrues at 1/60th a year for the first 20 years, then 2/60ths to 30 years and there is a two-thirds final salary pension after 30 years. They can also retire at 50 if they've clocked up 25 years of service. Their contributions are 11% of salary while the fire brigade pays 24%. For NFPS members, the accrual doesn't change until retirement at 60 on a two-thirds final salary scheme after 40 years. Their contributions are rather less generous — 8.5% of salary with their employer paying about 12%. A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said:
"Nearly three-quarters will see no change in their pension age in 2015. Under the new scheme, 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. The equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much."
Let's take a closer look at that, shall we? It would only be possible for a firefighter to retire on £19,000 per year if they'd worked continuously from the age of 20 to 60. Anyone forced to retire at 55 because of ill health would lose more than 47% of their pension, leaving them with just £9,000 per year. If they don't retire at 55, they could face being dismissed for fitness reasons. A 2013 government review of firefighters' pensions found that given the nature of the job, most would be unable to work to 60. So basically, the government is perfectly aware that the majority of firefighters would not receive the full £19,000 and want them to decide between being sacked over their fitness or accept a 47% loss on their pension for retiring earlier.
Pensions aren't the only area where the fire brigade are being squeezed — last year, Boris Johnson engaged in a battle of wills with London’s Fire Authority (LFEPA) over proposed station closures and a reorganisation of the service. In January this year, 10 London fire stations were closed.
The latest strike is the 12th in the three year dispute, but this is the first time firefighters will be on strike for a full 24 hours. It also coincides with the start of the World Cup, and London Fire Brigade have issued pleas that people order takeaways rather than burn their house down after attempting to cook a late night meal while drunk.
The next strike is planned for Saturday 21 June starting at 10.00am and ending at 5.00pm.
Photo by Ken in the Londonist Flickr pool.