Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 51 Number 6, February 20, 2021 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Firefighters Achieve Landmark Court Ruling in their Struggle to Guarantee Pension Rights

Firefighters have been waging a long and protracted battle for guaranteed pensions. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) took a case to the Employment Tribunal recently and have won a new milestone battle in the fight to block the long-running neo-liberal offensive against retired workers. The court ruling has declared that fire authorities must stop delaying paying out firefighter pensions.

In 2018, the fire and rescue authorities had taken a new step in undermining the hard-won Firefighters' Pension Scheme, a defined-benefit occupational pension. When the scheme changed on April 1, 2015, from a final salary scheme to a career average revalued earnings (CARE) scheme, certain firefighters were forced onto the new scheme, while others were permitted to remain on their old schemes.

Defined-benefit pension schemes have been under attack for some time. Pensions are claims by retired workers on social value produced over their working life and on new value that is being produced by current workers. Under the defined-benefit scheme, a pension fund is built up out of the value firefighters produce, from which retired workers claim their pensions. Employers must continue to contribute to the fund a portion of the value produced so the fund can sustain the claims of retirees for the rest of their lives.

The government and the fire authorities follow the prevailing line that pensions are a cost. This view is also fostered by the conditions in which the fire services operate, where the value firefighters produce is not properly accounted and paid for. As a result, ways and means are found to cut that "cost", meaning to degrade the rightful claim of retired workers on the value that firefighters produce. Furthermore, government and employers would like ultimately to let go of their responsibility completely and shift from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution scheme, properly called a personal savings plan, which provides no guarantee of an income for the whole of a retiree's remaining life, and which are generally extremely lucrative to so-called investors.

The firefighters in this situation have responded by calling out the government and fire authorities, declaring the tactic discriminatory. That it was so was a view which had been upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2018 in a ruling that the government had indeed committed unlawful age discrimination. A subsequent appeal by the government was rejected by the Supreme Court.

The fire authorities held back paying the original pensions of those forced off the previous scheme, arguing that the new pensions were considered legal when they were introduced in 2015, and therefore there was a need to wait for the government to change the law.

Matt Wrack FBU general secretary

In response, the firefighters argued that under the Equality Act they must immediately be treated as though they had never moved from their original scheme. The latest Employment Appeal Tribunal, won by the firefighters through their union, has ruled that fire authorities must stop delaying and pay out these pensions.

The government has effectively climbed down and it stated last week that firefighters are now able to choose which scheme to claim at the end of their career. This throws out what had been the authorities' preferred method of forcing members to choose their scheme now, without access to vital information such as their circumstances at the time of retirement.

In achieving this victory, firefighters have disrupted a tactic meant to divide and weaken workers, and they have slowed down the move from a final salary to a career average pension, a move which may well be a precursor to winding down the defined-benefit scheme altogether. The firefighters' case is a just one.

Commenting on the outcome, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said:

"There is no disputing the law in this case - the Tory-Lib-Dem government's attack on firefighter pensions was discriminatory and firefighters are entitled to return to their rightful pension. But employers seem hell-bent on dodging their responsibility to pay up.

"While fire authorities waste endless sums on legal appeals, firefighters are being forced to retire without the pensions they are entitled. This tribunal's ruling is clear; employers can pay firefighters their proper pensions - and they must.

"After seven years of campaigning, lobbying, industrial action, and legal challenges, we're tired of the games and attacks from fire service bosses and government. Firefighters just want what they are entitled to - fairness and dignity in retirement, free from illegal age discrimination."


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