Lothian and Borders Fire Board (Pensions)

Question Time — Scottish Executive – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 7th February 2002.

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Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 2:30 pm, 7th February 2002

To ask the Scottish Executive when it last met representatives of Lothian and Borders fire board in order to discuss funding of pensions. (S1O-4625)

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I am not surprised by that answer. Does the minister concede that the meeting was convened only in the past few days, despite board members' repeated requests for a meeting with him? Will he confirm that the minimum requirement for tackling the pensions time bomb is a long-term commitment to deal with the fact that the pension scheme is unfunded? Does the minister acknowledge that the pension scheme is unfunded and that, during the 1980s and 1990s, Tory home affairs ministers and Labour councillors paid for essential fire services from the pension contributions of firemen?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That is two questions already.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Will the minister confirm whether such a ticking time bomb exists in other public services, such as police forces? How does the Executive plan to tackle that pensions disgrace?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I do not propose to discuss the history of the 1980s and 1990s, but I will mention more recent history. When I met the Tayside fire board in January of this year, I made clear my willingness to meet the conveners of all fire authorities in Scotland, which is what I did this morning, along with a number of firemasters and directors of finance. The meeting was constructive. After it, the vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, George Purcell, said:

"The discussions that we held this morning with the Deputy First Minister were positive, and I am pleased that he at least seems to be listening to the case COSLA has put to him in relation to fire brigade pensions."

There are two key issues, the first of which is the one to which Fiona Hyslop referred. Because of the level of recruitment in 1974, many pensioners are due to retire in the next two or three years. As a result, at this morning's meeting, we agreed to set up a short-life working group that will involve officials in my department, COSLA and representatives of the fire authorities. The group will jointly address the level of resources and examine the overall arrangements for funding pensions, particularly in view of the critical time that is coming up.

I am also very aware of the immediate financial pressures on many fire boards. Although I was not able to give the fire boards a firm commitment this morning, I indicated my sympathy for their plight and hoped that I would be in a position to give them encouraging news very much sooner rather than later.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Although I welcome that reassurance, will the minister also reassure me that there is no threat to front-line fire services in my Midlothian constituency?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

It was specifically pointed out that the Lothian and Borders fire brigade is very aware of the need to maintain front-line fire services. However, the issue of pensions is important and I hope that we will be in a position to address the concerns that have been expressed.

Photo of Angus MacKay Angus MacKay Labour

I congratulate the minister on the discussions that took place this morning, particularly with regard to the fire services in Lothian and the Borders. Does he agree that, when we hear good news about the protection of front-line fire services in Lothian and the Borders and the fact that the pensions issue is being addressed head-on, and then consider the effects that such news will have on council tax levels throughout the area, we should welcome that news, not criticise it?

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace Liberal Democrat

I should sound a slight note of caution: I did not have a cheque book in my hands this morning and there are some details that I still have to discuss with the Minister for Finance and Public Services. However, Mr MacKay is absolutely right. The Executive takes the proper funding of front-line services seriously. We are determined to fund those services properly to ensure that the people of Scotland—not just those in Lothian and the Borders—have fire services in which they can have confidence. Indeed, they have such services at the moment and we want to ensure that that situation continues.