Friday, 6 September 2013

A Whitehall Agenda ...

I am saddened by the news that the Fire Brigades Union is once again balloting its members in the Fire and Rescue Services for a national strike. While I have never gone on strike, and do not believe that striking ever actually achieves a satisfactory long term solution for the workers, I have every sympathy for the underlying reasons for this one. Sadly, however, it will not achieve what the service needs, and it will simply facilitate what Whitehall really wishes to achieve. A return to the old "Insurance style" fire service provision - a service provided by a private contractor and no longer the responsibility of the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The 2004 Act makes full provision for it, and a strike will simply bring forward the date on which the moment when a Fire and Rescue Authority "contracts out" the provision of the fire and rescue services it is legally required to provide. The only requirement for such a contractor is that they "must employ fire fighters."

Why do I, a person who does not believe the Union has been "good" for the service, or that it has always had the best interests of the service at its core, have sympathy with their cause on this occasion?

It is this, the Minister for Fire has laid before Parliament, proposals to extend the retirement age of fire fighters, currently set at the completion of 30 years service at age 50 or age 55 for everyone below senior (Assistant Chief or higher) rank. There were very sound and solid reasons for setting these as the retirement age back in 1948, and they are even more valid today. The Fire Brigades Pension Scheme was set up to cover it, with the members paying into it at between 11 and 14% of salary for the 30 years. Some, who could not be expected to complete 30 years service by reason of having joined at age 30 or later, paid in more. Their employers, operating under Whitehall 'rules' did not invest a single penny of this money they have collected over the years, instead spending it on all manner of pet projects, such as parks, gardens, luxury offices, schools and 'social engineering' schemes.

Now they claim that falling income from contributions means they cannot afford to pay the fire service pensions. Of course not, they spent the money, and have padded and protected their own, but to hell with the fire fighters.

The Minister, advised by his Civil Service nonentities - the majority of whom are earning five and six times what a fire fighter earns and look forward to gold plated and protected pensions themselves - now want to make the fire fighters work to a minimum retirement age of 60 years. The Minister has told Parliament that "perhaps" 23% of the fire fighters will be unable to do this due to ill health, injury or age related inability to maintain the required level of fitness (described by a doctor in a report NOT released by the relevant department, as being equal to that required for Olympic competitors) that is virtually unachievable by the vast majority over 55. In fact, their own report estimates that a "worst case" scenario will result in over 90% of fire fighters being sacked between 55 and 60 because they cannot maintain the level of fitness required.

The Union rightly says that a national survey shows that a maximum of 12% of those affected MAY be  "redeployed", which means the rest face the sack. Out you go, sorry, but we've no job for you - oh, and you can't get the full pension, and you'll have to wait until you're 60 ...

So what, you may say, this is only what every other worker faces. That is, to an extent true, but now we come to the reason the age limits were set in the first place. By the age of 50 a range of health issues start to bite. There is a very good reason that a large number of my former colleagues (all at least 10 years my junior) have had hip and knee replacements. Many have cartilage problems, many more, like me, have serious back problems which can only degenerate with age. I retired at 60, but I was in a non-operational post, and had to give up wearing Self Contained Breathing Apparatus at 56 (my doctor at the time actually asked me if I was trying to worsen my back condition) and I have a few other little problems which will worsen with age.

Reflexes are important in a fire fighter and with age these get slower, not a good thing in a tight corner. hearing loss, loss of smell, degenerating eyesight, all of these militate against someone continuing "in the job" beyond 55, and even now, many who should retire at 55 find themselves having to retire earlier because of these problems. Yet along comes a Minister and lays before Parliament a proposal to ignore all of this, all of it very, very well documented and verifiable, and extend the pension age for everyone in the service by 5 to 10 years. All to solve a problem the political classes (and I include the Civil Service in that) have created by their own stupidity and cupidity.

Sadly, I do believe the Whitehall agenda here is to remove the Fire and Rescue Service operational provision from public management to private. This change to the pension scheme is, in my view, simply a means to an end. By making it impossible to reach the pension age as a fire fighter, they hope that fewer people will stay on long enough to qualify for the full benefit. Those who don't will, as usual, be offered the opportunity to 'freeze' their contributions (the Treasury rubs its hands with glee!) or to 'transfer' them to whatever new scheme they can join - which will, undoubtedly offer far less benefit. By forcing the issue and provoking a strike Whitehall is laying the foundations for a "sell off" to their lobbyists and future directorship providers, of the Fire and Rescue Services. THis will do two things - it will remove the responsibility for the reduced service from Ministers and Civil Servants, and it will weaken, and even possibly destroy, the Fire Brigades Union, possibly the most militant and Left wing of all the remaining Unions.

Blair started this trend, the present government is merely seeing through what the Civil Servants already had in the pipeline. The Minister is either blind, or a fool if he continues down this path. No good will come of it for anyone, least of all the taxpayer.

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