SCOTLAND’S 5,500 firefighters are threatening strike action over plans to make them work until they are 60, a union leader warned last night.
Roddy Robertson, Scotland’s senior Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) official, predicted it was “likely” his members would back action over the UK government’s proposals to increase firefighters’ retirement age from 55 to 60.
The last nationwide strike by firefighters took place a decade ago during a battle with the then Labour government over pay. The 2002-3 strike, which was the first UK-wide stoppage since the late 1970s, saw the armed forces respond to incidents in Green Goddess military fire engines.
Mr Robertson told The Scotsman that Scotland’s 4,000 full-time and 1,500 retained firefighters were now “gearing up” for a fresh strike vote. But he added that they would be prepared to pull out of any industrial action if the SNP government used its powers to block the planned rise in the retirement age.
Under the UK government’s plans – due to come into force in 2015 – firefighters who opt to retire at 55 face a cut to their pension of 5 per cent a year.
The FBU claims firefighters forced to work to 60 in a life-threatening and physically demanding job could fail fitness tests as they age and face “capability dismissal” from the service with the loss of pension rights.
Mr Robertson said the Scottish FBU had already held talks with SNP ministers, including the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, and the community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham, urging them to block the planned increase in the retirement age. He said he believed Scottish ministers were “sympathetic” but called on them to pledge to reverse the move ahead of the SNP’s spring conference this weekend.
In a letter to the UK government in January, Ms Cunningham wrote that it was “wrong to ask public employees to pay more for their pensions in this way” and talked about a policy “imposed by Treasury direction” on Scotland.
Mr Swinney previously said he had “no effective choice” but to pass on the UK government’s pension reforms because of threats by Westminster to reduce Holyrood’s block grant.
But Mr Robertson insisted SNP ministers had the power to avert action involving Scottish firefighters by refusing to impose Westminster’s pension reforms and allowing firefighters to retire at 55.
He said moves towards a strike ballot could take place within the next few weeks ahead of FBU annual conference in Blackpool in May.
“We’re in a situation where firefighters are gearing up to receive ballot papers on national industrial action. We’re looking at sooner rather than later,” Mr Robertson said. “The Scottish Government has powers it could use to avert action if it decides to do so and we hope that they accept our evidence.
“If the political will is there from the Scottish Government, I believe they could make a separate arrangement in Scotland.”
Last night Frank Doran, a Scottish Labour MP, supported the calls for Scottish Government ministers to act.
Mr Doran, the secretary of Labour’s trade union group at Westminster, said: “SNP ministers have repeatedly said they would try to mitigate the effects of what the UK government is doing, but have failed to do so.
“This is an opportunity for them to act rather than grandstand on an issue that is wholly within their control.”
SNP MSP John Wilson also backed the call for Scottish Government intervention to “show how much better off the people of Scotland would be under independence”.
Last night a spokesman for the Treasury said: “We have protected firefighters closest to retirement and the Scottish Government has the flexibility to do the same if it is willing to meet the agreed cost of doing so.”
A Scottish Government spokesman last night refused to comment on contingency plans, ahead of a possible strike ballot.
A Scottish Government spokesman added: “Failure to pass on these Westminster increases will mean a £100 million deduction from the Scottish budget for 2013-14 alone which would impact front-line services.”
The SNP government refused to discuss whether it had any contingency plans if FBU members vote for strike action in the next few weeks.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “No strike has been called and we remain in discussion with the FBU.“