Westminster "budget cuts" are the driving force behind police and fire reform rather than the Scottish Government's desire for single services, MSPs have been told.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he had not initially advocated merging Scotland's eight police forces and eight fire and rescue services into single national units, but Westminster cuts had made it a "necessity".
During a debate on the general principles of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill in Holyrood on Thursday, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman David McLetchie asked whether the "reform process is driven by protection from these so-called budget cuts from Westminster" rather than "a desire that the service that is now proposed is the best one for Scotland".
Mr MacAskill said: "I've always been quite clear that I actually came into situ having not been advocating for a single service, but the budget cuts (have made it) a necessity. On that basis, on discussion with those involved in the services, we have taken the view that we should make a virtue out of a necessity. We have to change to be able to deal with the fundamental cuts that are coming from Westminster, but as we change we should take the opportunity to make sure that we provide the best possible service, and that we improve and enhance what already are outstanding services.
"I would simply say that when I attended the Scottish Police Federation a few weeks back I received a standing ovation. Meanwhile, I think 20,000 officers are marching in London as we speak against the UK Government and the Home Secretary."
Mr MacAskill also said these "financial realities" are driving the pace of the reform with a projected start date of April 2013.
He said: "I recognise that the timescale for reform is challenging but financial realities mean that we need to take early action to protect and improve services. We need to set up the new services as soon as possible to maintain the momentum for reform, to reap the benefits as soon as possible and to provide certainty for the services, their workforce and the communities they serve. The leadership of both services support a start date of April 2013 and I will continue to work closely with them and others to achieve that."
He said the chief officers and chairs of the boards will be in place by autumn 2012 to aid the transition to the new structure. Mr MacAskill also said that officials are still negotiating with the Treasury to avoid a £30m VAT bill to be levied on the new single force.
He said: "While we costed reform on such a 'worst-case scenario', it would be a travesty if some of the potential benefits of those reforms were to be lost in this way."
Speaking on behalf of the Justice Committee, deputy convener Jenny Marra told how some witnesses "argued that the Bill would erode the local authority role in policing and fire and rescue services".
She added: "Others said reform would not be detrimental to local policing, or local fire and rescue services. The majority of the committee agreed with the latter view. We believe that reform presents an opportunity to enhance delivery across communities in Scotland."
She welcomed the Justice Secretary’s commitment to recruit chief officers by next autumn and called for similar support for other committee recommendations such as calls for clarity on civilian redundancies.
She said: "We heard that there is concern, understandably, from civilian staff in particular regarding projected redundancies. We've heard that 2,000 or more civilian posts could go in the police service alone. We've, therefore, asked the Government to clarify the impact of these redundancies and how they might affect the frontline."
On the Treasury`s proposed VAT bill, she said: "Regardless of whether this money will have to come from the police and fire and rescue budgets or elsewhere, we are concerned that the loss of VAT exemption will amount to an annual recurrent loss of millions of pounds from the Scottish budget. We therefore urge the Scottish Government to pursue with the Treasury all options available to ensure that the new services, like the Police Service of Northern Ireland, do qualify for a VAT exemption."
People who read this story also read
- Prison officers join public sector walkout over reforms to their pensions
- SNP fury as Labour and Tories strike coalition deal to run Stirling Council
- Firefighters tackle large early morning blaze at derelict barn
- Jewellery exhibition showcases European artists in Edinburgh
- Travellers face second day of delays over derailed freight train