Police, Fire and Rescue Services: Funding Reductions — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:51 am on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 9:51 am, 20th February 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. It will come as no surprise to anybody in this place that emergency services feel stretched; it is extremely challenging for them to operate within the constraints of nearly a decade of austerity, and that is the context of the debate today. The link between austerity and different types of crime has been well established. There is the global context of an increased risk of terrorist attacks, and forces across the UK are now also preparing for a no-deal Brexit. It is a perfect storm, and it can be remedied only with sustained investment from the UK Government.

The Scottish Government have been instrumental in ensuring that Scotland is protected from the austerity cuts that emergency services have faced in the rest of the UK. The Scottish Parliament does not have all the powers we require to increase our revenues in the way my colleagues and I would like, but we can make spending decisions that lead to much better outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Police numbers in Scotland are up by more than 5% since the Scottish National party took power at Holyrood in 2007. That is despite the wider context of nearly a decade of austerity cuts from the UK Government. In the same period, police numbers in England and Wales are down by nearly 14%. The headcount in Scotland is 17,175 officers, which is still 941 full-time equivalent police officers, or 5.8%, more than the figure we inherited when we came into office, which is significant. In September 2018, there were 32 officers per 10,000 people in Scotland, compared with 21 officers per 10,000 in England and Wales. That reflects not only our geography, but investment in our service, which needs to be protected, given the issues that have emerged in England around knife crime and so on.

The Scottish Government do not have the powers to mitigate absolutely everything, and emergency services are increasingly concerned about the impact of leaving the European Union. Police Scotland has said that a no-deal Brexit could have numerous consequences, such as officers being deployed elsewhere and a considerable risk of harm to the public if there were incidents of civil unrest. Nobody wants to see that, particularly not in Scotland, where we did not vote for Brexit, but we are at the end of the supply chain for many things, and if supplies start to run out, it could have a significant impact in terms of civil unrest.

I am absolutely appalled that our emergency services are having to squander public resources on preparing for civil unrest and other eventualities associated with crashing out of the EU without a deal. It is entirely within the Government’s gift to take no deal off the table and offer reassurances to those on the frontline that such a catastrophe can be avoided. The Government have allowed internal politics within the Tory party to escape into the lives of ordinary citizens, and Scottish taxpayers and citizens are picking up the tab.

Scotland has its own distinct challenges that must be met by our emergency services. In a diverse geographical landscape, they respond to incidents and various challenges within our cities and towns. We have our own cultural challenges and a separate legal system, but our police force has, in good faith, acknowledged that there may be a need to provide mutual assistance to other forces in the UK should that be required. The only circumstances in which that would be necessary as a result of Brexit would be if the Prime Minister continues her reckless course towards a no-deal cliff edge.

There are also challenges in the funding of fire and rescue services, and I say that as a former councillor who sat on the Strathclyde fire board before it was merged into the single service. There were good and legitimate reasons for doing that; many like to see the pooling of shared resources, and it made sense for the service. It meant a change in nature, and there were challenges in coming together as one, but nobody would change back, and there was broad cross-party agreement for the merger.

One benefit of the change for fire and rescue services has been their ability to adapt to the changing nature of the fire service. Recent FBU figures stated that non-fire rescues now considerably outnumber fire rescues. In 2017-18, more than 3,000 rescues were at non-fire incidents, compared with around 500 rescues from fires. Before the Strathclyde board was dissolved, it invested considerably in a state-of-the-art training centre at Cambuslang just outside Glasgow, and I recommend anyone who can to go and see that fantastic service. Firefighters can access a range of training opportunities, and all services in Scotland can come and use the centre, which is of huge benefit.

Scottish fire and rescue services have tried wherever possible to make savings to reduce the burden on their services, and the West Dunbartonshire service recently worked hard to reduce by 23% the number of unwanted fire alarm signals, which can cause call-outs that do not need to happen. That is 23% fewer times that the service had to turn out when it did not need to, which is important.

I would be remiss not to mention funding, and the UK Government must do the fair thing and adequately compensate Scottish police, fire and rescue services for the expenditure involved in contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. We should not be out of pocket because of the decisions of this Government. That additional expenditure is likely to amount to £17 million in policing costs alone—around the same amount that the UK Government has provided to Northern Ireland to cover its Brexit-related policing. Why should Scotland be treated any differently?

The UK Government have shown political discretion in funding the devolved nations in the past, and it is deeply unfair that the people of Scotland and those struggling on the frontline of the emergency services should miss out. Last year, we were successful in finally persuading the Chancellor to stop charging VAT to emergency services in Scotland, which was a result of moving to the single service. That came about because of the intransigence of the UK Government as regards fixing that situation. Some have said that we chose to go forward with that merger, which we did, and the cost savings made it worth while. However, it was a political decision by the UK Government not to treat our services in the same way as they treat Highways England, or other services in England, and that should not have happened in the first place.

As things stand, compensation is overdue. Our emergency services paid £175 million to the UK Government before the decision to scrap the VAT obligation. That funding could have gone to the frontline, saving lives and improving the service. When will the UK Government give back the money that we are entitled to? If VAT is exempted now, it should have been exempted in the first place, and we are due our money back.