Firefighters have challenged the Government and fire service employers on the introduction of the 2015 Firefighters’ Pension Scheme at an employment tribunal hearing that began this week.
Firefighters under 45 years of age on 1 April 2012 were compulsorily transferred into the new scheme in 2015.
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The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) claimed that the new scheme requires members to work for longer and to pay more into the pension fund, only to receive a pension that is greatly reduced in value.
Test cases of five firefighters were brought on behalf of the employees affected.
In addition to age discrimination, the claimants say the scheme discriminates on the basis of race and gender, as a disproportionate number of women and ethnic minority firefighters are affected by the changes.
The FBU claims the new pension arrangements also raise safety concerns where firefighters will likely work until a later age, but still be required to undertake physically demanding operation tasks.
Sean Starbuck, FBU national officer, said: “This is an extremely important case for us. We have always said that the 2015 scheme was unworkable and did not reflect the job that firefighters actually do.
“The Government simply ignored the evidence we presented and imposed the scheme anyway. We identified areas where we thought younger firefighters were being discriminated against and took up this challenge.”
A number of pensions challenges are currently working their way through employment tribunals and the courts, including a case by High Court judges on the reduction of their pensions.
Penny Cogher, pensions lawyer at Irwin Mitchell LLP, said: “The political climate is such that unions are now more likely to openly challenge the Government by bringing these types of claims.”
She continued: “In the private sector, the battle over maintaining defined-benefit pensions has usually already been lost except in the area of privatised industries whose pension benefits are protected by statute.
“In the private sector, often the message to the workforce is, no pay rises for all workers while the pension deficit has to be paid off, even for workers who have no residual defined-benefit pension benefits.
“It would be harder, I think, for these workers to bring the reverse age discrimination case against their employers and private-sector employers tend not to have such deep pockets as the Government.”
Qian Mou, employment law editor at XpertHR said: “Age-related requirements in retirement schemes are often justified on the basis of workforce planning and financial necessity.
“In the current case, it appears that the new pension scheme was introduced primarily with a view towards long-term costs. Costs alone have often been found to be insufficient to justify a discriminatory practice, so it will be interesting to see how the employment tribunal deals with this in a case with potential public safety implications.”