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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 19 December 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Superfast Broadband, Social Security (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Social Security (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Scottish Fiscal Commission (Appointment), Decision Time, Street Pastors Scotland (10th Anniversary)


Topical Question Time

Deployment of Armed Police and Tasers

1. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the deployment of armed police and the use of Tasers. (S5T-00833)

Police Scotland is proposing a limited extension of the role of armed response vehicle officers to allow them to be deployed to non-firearms incidents. The deployment of ARV officers to such incidents will be the responsibility of the initial tactical firearms commanders in the three regional control centres who, using their professional judgment, will support local policing as and when required. The new model will allow those highly trained ARV officers to make a valuable contribution to policing in their communities, with a focus on vulnerability and speed of response. The proposals were presented to the Scottish Police Authority board at its meeting this morning.

The board also considered a Police Scotland proposal to make an additional 50 Tasers available across local divisions. Front-line police officers are facing an increased threat and a greater number of incidents that involve bladed weapons and other violence. The availability of Tasers will offer officers greater protection and the opportunity to resolve issues more rapidly and reduce the risk of harm to the public and the offender. Police Scotland proposes to begin the selection process for around 500 officers to be trained to carry Tasers. The specially trained officers will be deployed at the heart of local policing in all 13 divisions across Scotland, helping to keep their colleagues and the public safe.

The Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland will keep both matters under regular review.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his detailed response. For those of us who are worried that the policy is a slippery slope towards an enforcement model of policing, what assurances can he provide that consideration will be given to scaling back the deployment of armed police and Tasers in the event that the threat to officers and the public reduces, so that there is not a one-way shift towards universal arming?

Does the cabinet secretary share the concern of Dr Nick McKerrell, a law lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, who has asked whether the force is taking advantage of what he calls “a vacuum of accountability” in policing in Scotland?

On the question about what Dr Nick McKerrell said, the answer is no. Members will be aware that Police Scotland has been planning for this approach for a number of months. A number of weeks ago, Police Scotland provided a briefing to party spokespersons, including Mr McArthur’s party leader, on its plans and thinking on the issue. The announcement was delayed as a result of changes at the head of Police Scotland—namely, in relation to Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins—but the paper went to the SPA board this morning. Police Scotland set out the details of the paper last week, because it was in the public domain at that point. Therefore, to suggest that this is in some way to do with a vacuum of accountability is simply inaccurate and misleading.

On the wider point about deployment of an increasing number of firearms officers, the member will recall that last year I set out the increase in firearms officers that we required due to the level of threat that the country faced, and the additional deployment that would come about in that regard.

The announcement about which the member asked does not involve an increase in the number of firearms officers; it is about the use of existing firearms officers, who are currently deployed only to incidents that involve a threat to life or firearms. It is about the tactical firearms officer, where they believe that firearms officers could be deployed to an incident in relation to which there is a particular vulnerability or need for speed and an ARV is available to respond quickly, having the ability to deploy those officers to deal with the incident, to support local policing. That does not involve an increase in the number of firearms officers.

The provision of Taser specially trained officers is to help to protect the public and to protect officers, given that police officers are experiencing an increasing number of incidents in which violence or a bladed instrument is used. Such incidents clearly present a risk to police officers. I am sure that the member accepts that there is a duty of care to police officers, which involves ensuring that officers are appropriately equipped to deal with incidents of that type as and when they occur and to bring them to an end quickly.

On the latter point, I certainly agree; I do not think that anyone would dispute that police officers need the tools to keep themselves and the public safe, which include the deployment of armed officers. However, that is not the same as accepting that armed police officers attend all incidents as a matter of routine. As part of the deployment model that is under SPA scrutiny today, it is proposed that armed officers might attend, for example, domestic disputes. The public will rightly be concerned that the presence of an armed officer might heighten tensions in such a situation. Does the cabinet secretary share those concerns?

The member misunderstands the deployment model that Police Scotland intends to take forward. He suggested that armed officers will be used for routine policing, which is simply not the case; they are there to support local policing. Where the tactical firearms officer determines that there is a need to respond quickly, that there is a vulnerability and that an ARV is able to respond more quickly than local policing can, the ARV should be able to do so.

The member gave the example of a domestic incident. If we had a situation where a woman was under threat from her partner at home, and an ARV was sitting around the corner but it could not respond to that call because of the existing deployment model and would have to wait for five or 10 minutes until local policing could arrive too, I suspect that most members would say that they would prefer for that ARV to respond as quickly as possible if it could get there sooner. That is exactly what the new deployment model is about.

The new deployment model is not about using armed response for normal, routine policing matters. It is meant to allow the tactical firearms officer to make a decision to deploy ARV officers if they are closer at hand to respond to someone who is vulnerable or to a particular issue that needs a quick response. I would have thought that all members would recognise that it is about making use of the very high skills that those officers have.

It is also worth keeping in mind that ARV officers are police officers first, who are highly trained in firearms capability as well. It is the Government’s clear intention that Police Scotland remains an unarmed police force, but with a specialist armed capability that can be deployed as and when it is necessary. That will continue to be the case with these changes to the deployment model.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, where an allegation has been made of the improper use of firearms, it is necessary for public transparency, for trust in the police and to ensure that learning outcomes are developed that a full investigation takes place?

Yes, that is the case. Any time a firearm is used by a firearms officer in Police Scotland or a Taser is used by Police Scotland officers, the matter is automatically referred to the Police Investigation Review Commissioner to evaluate the use at that point and to determine whether the officers operated within the normal standard operating procedures of Police Scotland. Every time a firearm or a Taser is used by a Police Scotland officer, it is automatically referred to the Police Investigation Review Commissioner for consideration.

Following the integration of British Transport Police Scotland into Police Scotland, will those BTP officers who carry Tasers be included in the figure of 500 officers who are to be equipped with Tasers?

BTP officers have a very limited Taser capacity and they have no firearms capacity in Scotland at all. Any firearms capacity that is delivered within the railway system in Scotland is delivered by Police Scotland, because BTP does not have that specialism in Scotland. That is one of the reasons why I believe that those forces should be under a single command structure.

A limited support by Taser officers is provided to BTP at the moment through its overall UK approach to matters. It will be an operational matter for the chief constable to determine whether those officers continue to be Taser officers, whether they are included within the 500 or whether they will supplement that figure. I can assure the member that overall in Police Scotland the intention is to have 500 specially trained officers who are able to support local policing with Taser capability, as and when it is appropriate.

The cabinet secretary has told us that the existing model is flawed and he is commending a new model. We are seeing a situation in which a largely defensive police service has an increasing offensive capacity. The Scottish Green Party does not support these moves at all. Briefing or meeting parliamentarians does not equate to consultation. Will the cabinet secretary encourage Police Scotland to publish both risk assessments—the one for the existing model and the one for the proposed model, if it has not already been agreed—so that there can be the fullest discussion about what purports to evidence the need for those changes?

The policy intention behind this change was set out in the paper that the Scottish Police Authority published last week and considered today on the deployment model for both firearms officers and the use of Tasers.

I believe that, if there is an ARV nearby that can respond to an incident in which there is a need for a quick response, or where there is an issue of vulnerability, we should utilise the skills of those officers to do that. The new deployment model allows that to happen, under the command of the tactical firearms commander, who will decide whether it is appropriate. That decision will not be made by the local police commander—it will be made by the tactical firearms commander. Police Scotland has set out the rationale for that, which is to ensure that there is appropriate control in decision making on these issues.

The Scottish Police Federation has also set out very clearly why it believes that it is important that officers have the appropriate protective equipment to deal with issues that involve violence or weapons, and why it believes that Tasers can play an important role in addressing those incidents by bringing them to a quicker end and by protecting officers and the public.

However, it is not a case of Tasers being used proactively on an on-going basis; they will be deployed by local commanders as and when appropriate to support local policing. There is a clear process for determining when and how they will be used. I believe that the new deployment model in both areas will support local policing in addressing issues more effectively.


To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the finding by the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland that the budget for day-to-day spending is expected to fall by £250 million between 2018-19 and 2019-20. (S5T-00834)

First, I formally welcome James Kelly to his new role as Labour’s finance spokesperson.

In my budget statement last Thursday, I was clear about the detrimental impact that United Kingdom Government austerity is having on the Scottish budget. I highlighted that, over the 10-year period to 2019-20, Scotland’s block grant will have been cut by £2.6 billion in real terms. I also quoted from the Fraser of Allander institute, which said:

“By 2019-20 the resource block grant will be around £500 million lower than in 17-18”

in real terms. Monday’s analysis by the IPPR Scotland simply reiterates those points and confirms that the Scottish Government is facing significant and damaging real-terms cuts to our budget for day-to-day spending as a result of continuing UK Government austerity.

In order to mitigate those cuts, protect our national health service and other public services, and support our economy, we have reformed income tax in Scotland—our only significant fiscal lever—to provide growth in our tax revenues. Of course, while we have taken action to protect public services, the best way to stop public sector cuts would be for the UK Government to end its damaging austerity and invest in public services and the economy.

I thank the cabinet secretary for welcoming me to my new post, and I look forward to having constructive exchanges with him.

With that in mind, I am sure that he will be concerned that his budget has begun to unravel since he addressed the chamber on Thursday. It is not just the IPPR’s analysis that tells us that—we know from the Scottish Parliament information centre that local government funding has had a real-terms cut of £135 million. We also know that funding has not been put in place to support the pay increases. As far as councils are concerned, it is not just the numbers that matter, but the effect on local areas: the job losses, the closure of day centres and the reduction in library services.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that, in effect, he misled Parliament last Thursday? Will he revise the budget allocations to provide a fair settlement for local government?

I assure James Kelly that the budget is perfectly intact. I gave it a fair presentation last week in a half-hour statement, which was followed by an hour’s worth of questions. There is much detail in the documentation, and I am glad that members will have had more time to look over it so that they can see what a productive and positive budget it is. As well as investing in many parts of the public sector, it will ensure that we have the right environment for business growth, which is important so that we can grow our revenues and ensure that employment is at a high level and that we have social justice.

On local government specifically, I set out the figures to the chamber, and they remain the same. Essentially, there will be a cash freeze in resource terms, with more being provided in capital. I pointed out that, if local authorities used their power to increase council tax by up to 3 per cent, they would have a real-terms increase in their budgets.

James Kelly is right to point to the analysis that shows that Scotland is getting a real-terms reduction in its budget. Of course that concerns those of us in progressive parties. That is why we are using the powers and levers that we have to protect the people of Scotland from the UK Government’s right-wing austerity and, in so doing, ensure that our front-line services are adequately funded.

I set out our pay policy, which I think is fair and recognises the cost of living for public sector workers. I do not set local government pay, but I believe that local government is adequately resourced to enable local government workers to have fair settlement, too. That is now a matter for local authorities to engage on. Just as I look forward to further engagement with James Kelly, I look forward to further engagement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

The cabinet secretary said that one of the levers at his disposal was tax, but the Fraser of Allander institute analysis shows that, although £164 million would be raised through the tax changes, when account is taken of business rates relief and other factors, there is actually only £28 million available for investment in other areas of the budget. The reality is that the tax policy is all over the place. How can it be fair that some of those who earn between £43,525 and £58,500 pay less tax but those who earn between £24,000 and £43,525 pay more? The reality is that the tax policy is not coherent and is not delivering for social justice. Will the cabinet secretary therefore redraft that tax policy to produce a fair and consistent set of rates that will deliver a proper settlement for much-needed investment in Scotland’s communities?

If even the Daily Record is describing me as, in its eyes, the Robin Hood of Holyrood, I suppose that I must be doing something right. That is the Daily Record’s view of the progressivity of our tax system. However, it is true to say that we are trying to create the conditions for economic growth, and our business rates policies absolutely do that. James Kelly referenced one of the elements that are part of that package. If we take the example of non-domestic rates, local government welcomed the fact that we did not lift the relief that arm’s-length external organisations were receiving—in fact, if memory serves me correctly, it was welcomed by the Labour Party. There is therefore a range of decisions that have been set out in the right context and circumstances. However, on tax overall, we are raising more to ensure that the real-terms reduction that we received from the right-wing Tory Government is essentially overturned by our good governance and the tax decisions that we have been able to take—that is being progressive.

In recalibrating and resetting the overall tax structure, we have ensured that it is fairer and more progressive. More than 70 per cent of taxpayers will pay less—those earning under £33,000 will pay less—but the tax structure will also raise more for public services. The documentation that I have published shows what could be described as an anomaly in that last year we froze the threshold for the higher rate but we are proposing to increase the threshold for the higher rate this year in the budget. The anomaly that is created there is therefore just part of resetting the whole system. Overall, what we are doing is more progressive and certainly ensures that we have turned real-terms decline into a positive; it is about resetting the system in a way that uses our power to protect front-line services and properly reward our public servants.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us what alternative, balanced tax and spending proposals the Labour Party has brought forward? Does he agree that it is simply not credible for Labour to assert that austerity can be ended by this Parliament, without specifying exactly how?

To be fair, the economy has faced some turbulence and the Labour Party has faced some turbulence as well over the recent period. There has been a change in leadership and spokespeople, but the last information that I had was from engagement by Alex Rowley on the proposition on the role of income tax in Scotland, which was costed in our discussion paper, and our modelling of the position of the Labour Party, which essentially would put a penny on the basic rate. Of course, that is not what the Government has proposed. Actually, if we compare our starter rate to the basic rate that Labour proposed, we can see that there is a difference of 2p in the pound. The Government has taken a methodical approach to the matter and has engaged with stakeholders. We have set out our progressive plans, which meet the four tests that we have set out regarding putting in place a more progressive system, protecting lower income earners, protecting public services and supporting the economy. That stands out in sharp contrast to the chaotic position of the Labour Party.

However, that said, with a shadow Cabinet now in place, maybe the Labour Party will want to come and see me with constructive proposals as we take the budget through the legislative process of the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission is forecasting continued slow growth with a resultant £2.1 billion decrease in tax revenue. What is the cabinet secretary’s preferred way of making up the shortfall: cuts to public spending or further tax rises?

Of course, Bill Bowman is certainly the man to ask, because if I was to follow the Tories’ tax policies, I would have to find another £501 million for next year from front-line public services to fund the Tory position on tax rises—sorry, I mean tax cuts, of course: tax cuts for the richest in society, whether it is big business, property owners or those who pay income tax.

My balanced budget will allow us to invest in the economy, deliver the tax system in a fair and progressive way and invest in our public services, turning the spend into real-terms growth.

In terms of the Fiscal Commission’s forecast, I am sure that Bill Bowman, assiduous as he is, has looked at the full detail of the report, which identifies issues of productivity, working-age population and levels of employment. The greatest threat on all those indicators is the Tory party and its mismanagement of Brexit, the decisions that it has taken, the on-going austerity and the attacks on those with the least. All of that has compounded the problem and presents the greatest risk to the economy of the United Kingdom and specifically to Scotland’s economy.

In the face of those cuts to the Scottish budget, in the face of that uncertainty and in the face of the mishandling of the Brexit negotiations, the Scottish Government is investing in our economy and our people through skills, innovation and business growth, and through education and infrastructure, to ensure that Scotland is the best place in which to live, work and invest.

Although some would argue that the Fiscal Commission’s forecasts are a bit cautious—Ernst & Young, for example, gave a far more positive and higher forecast for economic growth—we will invest in the economy to ensure that we are in a stronger position.