Chief Fire Officer speaks out on strike possibility

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With pension talks between employers, the government and the unions continuing and the possibility of a national strike by firefighters on the horizon, Mark Jones, Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service’s Chief Fire Officer, has spoken out.

He said: “The government is in the process of making changes to all public sector pension schemes, and I think everyone can see the need to reduce the liability on taxpayers. I feel it is important for me to state what I think the impacts of this process might be for Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service.

“Most firefighters already pay a high amount into their pension scheme – 11 per cent of their pay is normal. Under the government’s proposals, higher contributions (an average of 13.2 per cent of earnings) are certain for all firefighters, although some protection for those closest to retirement is offered. Most firefighters will have to work longer before receiving their pension.

“Much is made of the fact that the taxpayers subsidise these pensions, and it is true that a nominal contribution is made by the employing fire authority. One of the main problems is that, for many years, successive governments have failed to establish a fund for firefighter pensions, and the contributions made by both firefighters and the local fire authorities are not invested.

“The absence of such a fund means that any pension payments will always have the appearance of coming directly from public taxation. My firefighters feel that there is little recognition of the fact that firefighters and their employers have greatly contributed.

“The principle behind these unfunded schemes is that those working within the service will pay pension contributions which subsidise those who have retired. However, the ever-reducing number of firefighters and the growing longevity of people combine to make the schemes more costly each year.

It is fair to say that the current scheme is a good pension scheme and it is one of the reasons that people seek to join the fire and rescue service and remain within it. We attract high-quality applicants and enjoy very low staff turnover. The current changes will have several effects:

“Over the long term, the cost of the scheme to the taxpayer will decrease (all firefighters understand that wish).

The average age of firefighters employed will increase.

“Experienced staff are likely to retire as soon as they can in order to protect their benefits.

I don’t think the public will relish the idea of an ever-ageing workforce being responsible for the hard and dangerous work that firefighters often have to undertake. The current national economic situation which has caused these changes to be required also has direct impacts which make the proposed changes more difficult. Firefighters are being asked to tolerate higher contributions to their pension while being held on a year-on year-pay freeze while inflation continues.

“In common with all fire and rescue services, we have made preparations which model how we might be able to provide a limited service in the event of a strike by firefighters. We would prefer that these plans never need to be activated.”

Councillor Andy Dransfield, Vice-Chairman of Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority and lead member on financial matters, said: “Of course we are pleased that, in noting these changes which are being made at national level, many of our longest-serving firefighters are to be protected by the government’s assurances on protection of their benefits.

“Nobody wants a strike by firefighters, and I hope that the ongoing national negotiations reach a satisfactory agreement between all parties.

“Our firefighters do a very good job of keeping our communities safe, and we have a remarkable record in Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes on public safety.

“We do recognise the need for the government to lower its costs, and I sincerely hope that industrial action by firefighters doesn’t occur.”