A House of Lords ruling that should give "retained" firefighters pension rights for the first time will have implications for millions of part-time workers in most sectors of the British economy.
The law lords in Matthews & Others v Kent & Medway Fire Towns  UKHL 8 backed by majority decision an appeal by a group of retained firefighters who claimed that they should be entitled to join the fire brigade's pension scheme, which is only open to full-time staff. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had initiated the proceedings and argued that retained firefighters, who are on call for up to 168 hours a week, should be entitled to the same pension and sick pay rights as full-time firefighters. The FBU described the judgment, which will affect 18,000 retained firefighters, as "momentous".
The FBU fought a fire-year battle on behalf of a sample group of 12 firefighters from Kent and Berkshire who have other jobs but are "retained" on emergency call. The firefighters lost their case in an Employment Tribunal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal before it was accepted in the House of Lords. It will now return to an Employment Tribunal, under direction that the original decision was defective and ought therefore to be set aside.
The firefighters' employers had argued that retained firefighters worked under different contracts to full-time firefighters and had different duties. However, the law lords ruled that the tribunals had focused too much on the differences between their roles — which were usually a function of the extra hours worked by the full-timers — and said that their contracts should be considered equivalent.
The test case ends an effective loophole in the Part Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 — which was passed to ensure part-time workers better rights — under which employers could put all part-time workers under a separate category known as "any other contracts". The law lords held that these regulations ought not to be interpreted in an over precise manner and that the focus should be on the similarities in the work rather than the differences.
Although the FBU case was fought on the issue of pension rights, it could be used to argue for parity of any employment right, including basic pay rates or holiday payments. The guidance provided by the House of Lords as to what constitutes "broadly similar work" may provide an incentive for many other part-time workers, in all kinds of sectors, to bring discrimination claims.
The FBU said retained firefighters would now be able to gain backdated membership of the pension scheme going back at least six years to when the regulations on part-time work came into force. The Government and local authorities that contested the case may now face legal costs estimated to run into hundreds of thousand of pounds as well as the additional funding costs for this pension provision.