Women firefighters lobby Parliament over pensions

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Will you still need me, when I’m 64? Not just a Beatles song, but the question faced by women firefighters as a result of controversial pensions changes.

And the answer in many cases is “Yes” – with some women who work in jobs such as control facing the prospect of working until 68.

The coalition Government’s bid to hike up pension contributions, while making staff work longer for less, is hitting firefighters hard.

But women – who make up less than 4% of staff – face even worse problems, which was why they travelled to Parliament to lobby MPs.

Denise Christie, from Edinburgh, is executive council member for women at the FBU, has 15 years’ service, and works at Lothian and Borders Fire & Rescue.

She told UnionNews that women lose out because when they take maternity leave they cannot afford to keep up their pension contributions.

So they have to make them up when they return to full-time employment on top of the regular payments.

“We may have to work an extra four years, and if the retirement age goes up to 60, that could be 64. The fire service is a physically demanding job, and we don’t want any firefighters of 60, it is absolutely crazy.

“Women are concerned they may be dismissed from work because of incapacity. There are no alternative jobs in the fire service because they are all taken up by non-uniformed staff.”

Denise Christie said there had been women firefighters for more than 30 years, but they were still under 4%, and the coalition had scrapped the previous Labour government’s targets to increase the number.

She fears the pension changes will make it harder to recruit and retain women firefighters, and added to the abolition of the equality and diversity targets, it means the service will not resemble the community it works in.

Lucy May, who is based at Trowbridge fire station, Wiltshire, and has 17 years’ service, said: “Women have to work harder just to get in – that is a fact. We have to do so much more work than men, especially on our upper body, and to maintain that to the age of 60 is going to be incredibly difficult.

“I have had two children, and I really don’t know how much longer I will have to work. But the extra money we will have to pay will be used to pay off the deficit which is disgraceful – we are paying for what the bankers have done.”

Women in the fire service are much more likely to be in the Local Government Pensions Scheme, where the retirement age will move up to 66 and then on to 68.

That is the pension scheme for those doing vital work in fire service command and control centres – the vast majority of whom are women.

Val Hampshire, also from Wiltshire, works in control and already has a quarter of a century’s service, now faces at least 17 or 18 more years.

“It looks as if I will have to work until 68 in what is a mentally demanding job,” she said.

The coalition plans to hike pension contribution rates to at least 14.2% by 2015, and up to 17% for officers, meaning any extra contributions of up to £7,000 for those three years.

Ministers also intend to increase the retirement age from 55 to 60, even though the FBU says there is no evidence that working until then is possible for any firefighter in a frontline role.


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