Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services
Last November, I launched a second consultation on a new pension scheme for firefighters, to take effect from 1 April this year. That consultation is now over and I am pleased to announce my decision on the scheme design.
The Public Service Pensions Act 2013 sets a normal pension age of 65 for most public sector workers, with firefighters, police officers and members of the Armed Forces having a normal pension age of 60. I am bound to implement a scheme which complies with this requirement, meaning firefighters will have to work until age 60 to claim a full pension. Those who wish or need to retire early can still claim a pension from age 55 onwards, but at a reduced level.
However, there are good reasons for treating firefighters as a special case. Unlike most other categories of public sector workers, they are subject to very stringent fitness standards. Many older firefighters will unavoidably struggle to meet these standards, and requiring them to work to age 60 raises a real risk of their being completely unable to do so. This in turn means they could lose their jobs while still being unable to claim their pensions, or having them heavily reduced. These issues caused a long-running industrial dispute with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). I have some sympathy with these concerns. However, their exact impact depends on firefighters’ individual circumstances and career histories. So I needed to consult in detail on these issues.
I therefore consulted on two proposals. The first would mirror the scheme which will be implemented in England, and which would reduce pensions for those wishing to retire at age 55 by around 21%. The second would offer better early retirement terms – a reduction at age 55 of only 9%. This would be cost-neutral as it would be balanced by a slightly lower rate at which firefighters accrue pension each year. I was pleased this second proposal led the FBU to suspend strike action in Wales. The Scottish Government made a similar offer to firefighters there.
I would like to thank the many firefighters and their representatives who responded to my consultation. Their clear preference was for the second proposal, generally because it was seen to reflect the physical demands of the job better.
I agree with them. It cannot be right to expect firefighters to work beyond the age when many of them will become unfit to do so, or to penalise them for the unavoidable effects of ageing. To do so would be unfair, both on firefighters and on the citizens and communities whose safety they protect.
I have therefore decided to implement the second proposal as above, offering better early retirement terms to firefighters in Wales. I aim to make the regulations which give effect to it by early March. These are subject only to the negative procedure, but the importance of this issue makes it important for the Assembly to be aware of my decision. I will be writing to Fire and Rescue Authorities and to firefighters’ representatives to set out the terms of the scheme in more detail.
I also consulted on more detailed matters, such as employer contribution rates and the governance of the Scheme. I received few representations on these, and will implement the proposals substantially unchanged from the consultation.
In the longer term, the role of the Fire Service is changing. Increasingly, it involves preventing fires and improving fire safety, rather than just responding to fires and other incidents. The Service has a proud record in this area – but it does mean the role of a typical firefighter is also changing. I expect Fire and Rescue Authorities to reflect this, and to manage and develop the workforce to face these new challenges. I will set out my detailed expectations in a new National Framework for Fire and Rescue Services later this year, and look forward to working with the Fire Service and with firefighters in developing it.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Assembly returns I would be happy to do so.