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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 25 October 2017

Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Common Agricultural Policy Convergence Moneys, Withdrawal from the European Union (Negotiations), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Withdrawal from the European Union (Impact on Musicians and the Music Industries)


Urgent Question

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service plans to close fire stations and reduce firefighter numbers.

The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs (Annabelle Ewing)

The firefighters play a vital role in protecting our communities, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service continues to deliver the high standard of service required to keep Scotland safe. Since the establishment of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in 2013, there have been no compulsory redundancies and front-line services have been protected, with no closure of any fire stations in Scotland.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is currently exploring how it should develop to meet the new and emerging risks facing our communities, including how transformation of service delivery could see the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service do more for the people of Scotland. No decisions have been made on what that transformation would look like, and the transformation process will involve liaison and discussion with staff, partners and the public.

The Scottish Government has increased the overall operational budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service this year by £21.7 million, to support investment in equipment and resources. I am in regular discussion with the chief fire officer and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service chair about the Scottish Government’s funding of the service next year and beyond.

Claire Baker

When the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was created, we were promised that front-line services would be protected. The papers leaked today show that that is not the case. The minister may claim to have increased the budget, but she knows full well that, since 2013, £53 million has been cut in real terms, including a real-terms cut to the resource budget last year. There are 700 fewer firefighters than in 2013, 60 to 100 on-call pumps are unavailable each day and today we have learned that stations are to be closed and that front-line firefighter numbers are to be cut. Can the minister seriously still claim that her Government is protecting front-line services?

Annabelle Ewing

I reiterate what I said in my first response; perhaps those points were not picked up. There have been no compulsory redundancies and there have been no station closures. Indeed, it may interest the member to note that some 100 new firefighters have been recruited in the past year. She referred to the single-service reforms and, of course, during those reforms it was anticipated that savings would be part of the package.

The member referred generically to budget resourcing issues. Discussions on this year’s budget are on-going, as is the normal procedure and as would be expected to take place. It is not a help that Scotland’s budget over the years 2010-11 to 2019-20 has faced cuts from the United Kingdom Government of some £2.9 billion. I hear the Tories groaning, but it is also not a help that we are seeing £10 million annually taken out of the budget for our Scottish Fire and Rescue Service by the UK Tory Government at Westminster.

I would have thought that the member would wish to get behind the growing calls to get the £10 million per annum—£50 million by the end of 2017-18—that has been taken out and the VAT back from the UK Government. In that regard, it is disappointing to note that only one Labour MSP has signed Ben Macpherson’s parliamentary motion calling for that very thing to happen—only one Labour MSP has signed that motion, and that Labour MSP is not Claire Baker.

Claire Baker

That is a really disappointing response from the minister on a serious issue. I support the calls for the VAT exemption, but can the Scottish Government guarantee that if that resource was to come to Scotland, it would go to the fire service and would mean an uplift in the fire service budget? Does that excuse the decisions that have been made by the Scottish Government in recent years that have led to the significant cuts that we are seeing in the fire service? The minister should accept that there has been a reduction in the number of firefighters—it is an insult to firefighters to refuse to acknowledge that.

We have heard from the Government that operational decisions on the allocation of resources are a matter for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, but those operational decisions are made in light of the budget set by this Government. The transformation is being forced through by a squeeze on resources, rather than being a response to the evaluation of risks, and the buck stops with the justice team.

The document that was leaked today claims that the service is facing

“the greatest financial challenges seen in decades.”

The chief fire officer admits that the current model is unsustainable and cannot last beyond the end of this financial year. Furthermore, Audit Scotland has previously warned of a £33 million budget cut.

What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, or the minister, had with the chief fire officer about the leaked document? Does the minister endorse its content?

Annabelle Ewing

If Ms Baker supports the calls that are growing across the piece, including from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, for the UK Government to allow the service to reclaim VAT, she may want to sign Ben Macpherson’s motion, as at least one of her Labour colleagues has managed to do.

Claire Baker raises the issue of risk evaluation and responding to that. This morning, she may have heard the chief fire officer on “Good Morning Scotland”, when he talked about the need to look at, for example how we tackle the problem of our retained duty system. We have seen that such on-call systems—in Scotland, in the UK as a whole and across the world—are under pressure because of our changing lifestyles. We cannot pretend that those issues do not exist; rather, we must look at them to see how we can find solutions to them, which is what the discussions on the transformation process are intended to do. Of course, as I have said, over the past year, we have increased the operational resource budget made available to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s by £21.7 million.

I conclude by quoting the chief fire officer on the GMS radio programme:

“We have had tremendous support from the Scottish Government as we have gone through the initial stages of our reform journey to create the single Fire and Rescue Service for Scotland. We understand that there are financial pressures out there and we are working very, very closely with the Scottish Government at this moment in time on the redesign of the fire and rescue service and also to ensure that it is properly and sufficiently funded.”

That is what the chief fire officer said this morning. I have regular discussions with the chief officer and I will continue to do so.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The latest SFRS performance review outlines missed targets to reduce special service casualties and dwelling fires, yet response times have been steadily growing across Scotland over the past five years. The minister may talk about transformation, but we know that that is code for cuts. How will the minister reassure the public that our fire service’s performance will not suffer further as a result of cuts to firefighters and stations?

Annabelle Ewing

I really am quite taken aback by the brass neck—if I may use that word, Presiding Officer; I am not sure whether the phrase is entirely parliamentary, but I think I am getting the nod—of those on the Tory front benches. We have just been talking about VAT. Across the United Kingdom, the only territorial fire service that is, uniquely, subject to VAT is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I would have thought that the member might be more inclined to seek to ensure that our fire service is not deprived of the sum of £10 million a year, or £50 million by the end of 2017-18.

We have seen the VAT rules changed for academy schools, Highways England and various other bodies but, for some reason, not for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I would have thought that the member would be best served by doing what his 13 Tory MP colleagues in the House of Commons have done and writing to the chancellor to seek an end to what is, in effect, discriminatory treatment of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service as far as the VAT rules are concerned. Perhaps the member could start by signing Ben Macpherson’s motion, which calls on the UK Government to do exactly that, because not one Scottish Tory MSP has signed the motion and sought to stand up for our Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. What a disgrace that is.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

How does the minister square the loss of about 1,000 fire officers since 2010—as Claire Baker said, 700 have been lost since the centralisation of the fire and rescue services in 2012-13—and reports of what appears to be more than a £23 million shortfall in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s budget with the former justice secretary’s view that people who work in our fire and rescue services

“are one of our most important assets and we need to protect them.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2011; c 1559.]?

Annabelle Ewing

I reiterate that we have seen a successful recruitment drive over the past year, when we have recruited some 100 new firefighters. That is an excellent example of how determined the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is to be the best that it can be and to deliver for the people of Scotland.

We have increased the budget over the past year, and the operational resource available to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has increased by £21.7 million. It does not help to operate within the general budgetary constraints that this Government is subject to as a result of Westminster cuts amounting to £2.9 billion over 10 years, which I have referred to, nor does it help that we have seen, uniquely, the taking away from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service of VAT, which it cannot recover. Those are issues that we have to tackle and must resolve. In the meantime, as we continue to do that, we are in regular discussion with the chief fire officer and the chair of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, and those discussions continue in advance of our draft budget.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The minister alluded to the challenges that changing lifestyles and social patterns have caused for the recruitment of the retained fire service, not just in the Highlands and Islands but across Scotland. If there is to be a transition to a different model, will she give an assurance that the Government will adequately fund that transition to ensure that no part of Scotland does not have adequate fire cover?

Annabelle Ewing

In looking at the transformation that is required to meet the new risks emerging in communities the length and breadth of Scotland and the new realities of life—including the issues that John Finnie referred to—it is clear that the transformation can work only if the resources are available to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to ensure that it can deliver the service that we all expect from it.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I note that a number of members did not get a chance to ask a question, but I hope that there will be other opportunities later in the week.