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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),


Question agreed to.


Radioactive Contaminated Land

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Members’ Priority Access

10.14 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): This petition highlights the frustration felt by many parliamentary staff over what they feel is a two-tier system giving MPs the formal right to queue-jump even though common courtesy has worked well for 150 years. The 380 signatories know that the staff keep this place running in the democratic interests of the country. I thank Unite, the union, for its tireless efforts on this campaign and hope that the Administration Committee will soon abandon the regime of common discourtesy and restore courtesy to the Commons. The petition states:


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Fire Service Retirement (Ill Health)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Steve McCabe.]

10.15 pm

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing this debate to take place. It is a very important subject and we have people in every constituency who will be concerned about it.

Let me start by saying that I do not see the Government as the bogeyman in this respect. I have not turned into one of the awkward squad—I am just trying to be a critical friend. The Government have genuinely tried to improve a bad situation, but because of unforeseen consequences we have ended up in a position that nobody wants to be in, including the Government. The situation is unsatisfactory, and I think that we all want to try to resolve it.

The ability to retire on ill health grounds in the public sector has been badly abused in the past, as anybody who has been involved in the public sector would recognise. A few years ago, it was always the aspiration of people of my generation to retire early. I remember thinking, “Will I be gone at 55 or 60?” People perceived it as almost a public service to retire early because plenty of others wanted their job and it was seen as making way for a younger man to take over. A lot of that has changed. What was wrong was that many people, in lots of different areas, took early retirement and then reappeared—they were suddenly fit again and working in the private sector, as consultants, or whatever.

I served on my county council’s head teachers appointment committee, although I am not sure why I was qualified to do so, and we picked every head teacher and deputy head teacher in the whole of Nottinghamshire. We may not have done a good job; I am sure that the current system is a lot better. We also approved early retirement on ill health grounds. I realised that if there was anyone whom the authority considered dead wood, they were given early retirement. If someone was a good head teacher, there was no way that we were going to let them retire—they had to stay on. It was almost an incentive for people to be bad, and a reward for incompetence in some cases. That sort of abuse happened across the whole system, and the Government, given their responsibility for taxpayers, needed to deal with it.

Before 2004, I was very sceptical about the fire service pension scheme, but for somewhat different reasons. The fire service has a different remit and a different sort of employment, because people are at risk. However, the situation seemed mad to me, and I had friends who had to retire because of what was a very minor disability as far as I was concerned—their hearing or their sight was not quite as good as it was. Because of something very minor, all of a sudden they were forced to retire from a job, and I saw that as crazy. There was no discretion. If a person could not qualify as someone who fought fires, they were gone. That was not good for the individuals concerned; they lost their jobs. They might have found other jobs, but they wanted to stay in the fire service and could not.

The situation was not good for the fire service. Men who had been expensively trained—not just to carry
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out specific firefighting tasks—were moved out and new people had to be trained. It was bad for the taxpayers, too, because they paid the bill for all the early retirements. So I think that the Government did the right thing in saying, “We’ve got to do something about this. We have to tackle this problem.” The Government did something about it through the Firemen’s Pension Scheme (Amendment) Order 2004, which effectively changed things for the better. I thought that the Government’s intentions were honourable and that the amendment made a considerable difference. It almost certainly reduced the amount of early retirement that was happening at that time.

There was already a changing trend of early retirement in the fire service. The 2004 order allowed firefighters to remain part of the pension scheme if they were not able to fight fires but could take on other firefighter duties. Where the fire service could fit people who were already well trained into jobs talking to the public about fire safety, inspections and so on, it could keep them on. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 gave further impetus to that process of taking people on.

I suspect that Nottinghamshire county council and Nottinghamshire fire authority are not untypical. Three quarters of the fire service staff are on operational duties, and only a quarter are on non-operational duties, so the pool of jobs available to people not considered fit enough to take on operational duties is reduced. It is more difficult than the situation in an ordinary firm where it is possible to say, “We can fit these people into jobs.” There are fewer jobs to fit them into—only a quarter of all available jobs. We must remember, too, that they should be put into real vacancies. I would not want bogus jobs to be created that let people carry on pottering around—I hope that no one would, including the Government. Such a situation would be disgraceful for the service, the taxpayer and the people who were given those jobs. We want to make sure that people have real jobs. We have to accept that it was not always easy to fit someone into a job.

I was quite content with that situation. There was a bit of leeway, and most chief fire officers were trying to ensure that people were put into jobs if there were some available. If that process ultimately failed, people could still retire on the grounds of ill health, after going through the rigorous examination to determine whether they were available for operational duties. That situation changed in 2006, and this is where my criticism of what happened comes for the Government.

In 2006, the Government issued the firefighters pension scheme circular 11/2006, which changed the definition of “regular firefighter”. I recognise that this will be difficult for people. I will not be able to explain to everyone what a retained firefighter or a regular firefighter is; I am not going to sort out the complexity of the matter tonight. However, the change meant that when people were being tested, the definition of “a regular firefighter” had changed. In the past, people who were deemed unfit for the job were unfit for firefighting. The definition was changed effectively to say that a person is unfit if

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That rider does not seem like much but it has caused major changes.

Soon after that, in January 2007, the Firefighters Pension Committee challenged the Government about the circular. It stated that

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the important debate. Does he appreciate that his point applies not only to fully employed members of the fire service, but, critically, to retained officers, many of whom act voluntarily with limited financial remuneration and have another job outside the service? In the event of their being injured on active duty, as many might be when fighting fire, they would lose not only their previous entitlement to a full pension but probably their main source of employment. Consequently, they would become destitute. In my constituency, where we do not have a single fully paid fireman—they are all retained—there is a serious risk of the provision of the pension scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers leading to resignations that would put the public at risk.

Mr. Heppell: I thought, for a moment, that the hon. Gentleman would talk me out!

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a serious problem with retained firemen. There is a case in my constituency of a retained firefighter who is in the position that he outlined.

Firefighters are being judged on whether they are fit to do any job that a firefighter does, not only the firefighting role. If he can fulfil any one other task, he is deemed fit. It is almost impossible to be declared unfit for the job.

Four firefighters died at Atherstone in Warwickshire. Let us suppose that they had not died but had been injured. Let us suppose that others who were at that fire were so traumatised by what they saw that they could not work again; that someone was hurt saving someone else’s life, or that someone was injured while protecting the public or in an act of heroism, and then, because of circumstances in the local fire service, there were no vacancies that such people could fill. The only thing that a chief fire officer can do is sack them.

It is terrible that those whom we expect to put their lives on the line every day should, if they are injured as a result of that, be told, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” I am seeking a little flexibility to tackle such circumstances. It is right that chief fire officers are charged with a duty—indeed, I believe that it should be strengthened—of finding a job for anybody who is hurt through fighting a fire or an assault by a member of the public. We keep statistics on that and, if it was not happening, I would want to ask the relevant fire service for the reason. However, in circumstances in which there is no job, do we genuinely want to sack people? I do not believe that we do. I do not believe that the Government want to do that. One firefighter told me,
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“I can’t be put down as retiring on ill health as long as I can pick up the phone.” There is something wrong if we cannot deal with that.

Why do we not forget about the 2004 and the 2006 guidance? Why do we not forget about the guidance that we gave to the independent qualified medical practitioners, which said that as long as somebody can do any of the things that a firefighter can do, they will be deemed fit for work? Why do we not forget about all that and think about how we can go forward?

I will give the Minister a suggestion. I know that these things are complicated and will not be as easy as I describe, but when somebody is deemed unfit to fight fires by an independent qualified medical practitioner rather than by a GP—in the old days, people used to complain that they had a bad back and got early retirement—the fire services have a duty to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and should ensure that they use every method available to find that person a job in a service. But if that fails, why cannot people in the service look elsewhere? When we are talking about only 300 people in Nottinghamshire fire service, it is difficult to find someone a job; but when we are talking about 20,000 people in Nottinghamshire county council’s employment, it is much easier to find a job for somebody. We need to think out of the box and look at how we guarantee those people jobs.

However, the bottom line is that when we cannot find a person a job, whichever way we have tried, and when we have applied the 2005 Act, chief fire officers should have the ability to let them be rewarded properly for what they have done for us.

10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell)—he is a good friend, too—on securing this debate. I spent a happy year working with him in the Whips Office, during which I learned from his commitment to the people whom he represents, regardless of his job in government or outside government. That is a useful lesson to us all, whatever job we hold in government.

By way of introduction, let me set out an outline of the position, before coming to my hon. Friend’s points. The Government’s commitment to provide decent final salary pensions for those employed by local authorities and fire and rescue authorities is matched by the need to ensure that scheme members’ pensions are secure, affordable and viable, and, equally important, fair to taxpayers, who guarantee their security. The Government see it as critical to maintain the stability of the costs of firefighters’ pensions over the years ahead. Our policy is to ensure continuing solvency and cost stability, balanced against a good standard of benefit provision based on final salary pensions. That requires prudent stewardship by all interests: the Government, as regulator and guarantor, employers and scheme members—that is, the firefighters.

Occupational pension schemes and public service schemes are no different in the sense that they typically provide some form of cover for employees who suffer permanent incapacity or ill health before normal retirement age. For the majority of public and private
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sector schemes, that takes the form of an immediate payment of a pension and a lump sum, as is the case with the fire service. A contingent ill health retirement pension is, in effect, part of an employee’s remuneration package.

I fully endorse the principle, therefore, that firefighters who are genuinely suffering from poor health and who qualify under the pension scheme’s rules should be granted ill health retirement. That is an important right and a necessary protection for employees who fall ill, whether as a result of work or otherwise. However, ill health retirement should be granted only in appropriate cases and where no other means can be found of accommodating the employee in work.

The fire and rescue service has moved on a great deal in recent years. We should celebrate the fact that fire deaths are at their lowest level since 1959.

We should also celebrate the fact that about 80 per cent. of homes in England now have smoke alarms, and that the number is increasing. That is largely due to the work that the fire and rescue service do outside of what is known as operational firefighting. That is a growing role, and it is testament to the flexibility and the reforms that we have seen in the fire service in the past five years.

That changing role was particularly pertinent to the 2004 amendment that my hon. Friend talked about. When that amendment came into force, with the related guidance, in 2004, it took into account the new opportunities for us to bear down on the rate of ill health pensions, and to take advantage of the fact that our firefighters are particularly skilled men and women who can perform other roles. That is important, because we do have to bear down on the costs of the scheme.

The 1992 firefighters’ pension scheme remains the most expensive public sector scheme, with an estimated cost of 37.5 per cent. of pensionable pay. While members pay a contribution of 11 per cent. of pensionable pay, the employing authorities pay the balance. The main reason for the high cost of the scheme is the fact that benefits are payable from the age of 50, and a full pension of two thirds of final pensionable pay accrues over 30 years of service. In the current financial year, staff costs for authorities in England are estimated to total £1.17 billion, of which £467.9 million, or 40 per cent., is attributable to the pension cost of firefighters. Pension costs are therefore significant and, unless we continue to ensure that they are properly managed, the continued viability of the 1992 scheme could be threatened.

However, in recent years we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of firefighters claiming an ill health pension. At the turn of the decade, the figure was about 18 in every 1,000 employees. Perhaps largely due to the 2004 guidance and amendment, that figure has now been reduced to about nine in every 1,000. That is the most recent figure that I have seen. It still does not compare very favourably with the police, for whom the figure is about three in every 1,000. None the less, this is a good downward trend.

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