The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has filed court proceedings over the government’s withholding of improved pension benefits for its employers, citing it a ‘dirty trick’.
The FBU has filed in conjunction with three other unions in the latest chapter of a lengthy battle over concerns of a breach of the pensions cost gap - a key part of the new public service pension schemes which came into force in April 2015 under the coalition government.
The claim, filed last Friday (24 April), intends to force the government to lift the pause and improve employee benefits in line with the FBU's own regulations. The unions for prison staff, the POA, and public sector workers, the PCS, will join with the GMB and the FBU in the legal fight.
The unions say the government is in breach of the cost gap with savings not being used to the benefit of members, following a December 2018 ruling in the high court in favour of FBU employers. This ruled more than 6,000 firefighters were eligible to return to pre-2015 scheme arrangements.
The unions say benefits for thousands of scheme members should have been improved more than 12 months ago.
Should the FBU and unions win this latest case, members would be eligible for a choice between contribution reductions, benefit improvements, or a mixture of both under the outlined legislation.
The court action on behalf of the FBU employers and supporting unions comes as latest valuation in 2016 showed that the costs of the current scheme is below the government's predetermined level.
The regulations for these schemes require employee benefits be reduced or improved accordingly if the formal valuation of the pension schemes show the cost to the government has increased or dropped beyond its own predetermined level.
Improved benefits for firefighters after the December 2018 court win were delayed in January last year. Chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss said the pause would remain in place until the government digested the consequences of a different case relating to age discrimination, brought by firefighter members of the pre-2015 schemes, which the government also lost.
The FBU has called the delay an excuse for the government to pass on the cost of "a number of unlawful discrimination cases". By incorporating these extra costs, the FBU and unions argue the government could then claim that the cost of the scheme had risen above predetermined levels, therefore reducing employee benefits.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: "Less than six months ago we beat the government in court over pensions and their unwillingness to listen to our concerns, and we are ready and willing to do it again to get our members and thousands of public service workers the improvements they are owed.
"Ministers know full well that they are in breach of the regulations which clearly state that if the cost of financing the scheme drops, then the benefits should be passed onto members."
In addition to firefighters, the outcome of the case could also affect pension schemes members working in local government, the NHS, teachers, police, armed forces and civil servants who joined on or after the start of the 2012/13 financial year.
Wrack added: "Refusing to accept this and pausing the process amounts to a dirty trick which now means many of those in the scheme will have had their improvements withheld for over a year - worst still is that this robbery has been carried out by millionaire ministers.
"We are pleased to have the support of our fellow unions POA, PCS, and GMB and we are determined to see justice prevail."
A government spokesman told Professional Pensions that the Treasury would not comment on proposed or ongoing litigation.
"The government will consult later this year on proposals to respond to the pensions issues identified by the McCloud judgement," he added.
"At the same time, we will also provide an update on the cost control mechanism that assesses the value of public sector pensions, which was paused as a result of the judgment."
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