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New single Scottish police and fire service voted through by Parliament

The Police and Fire Reform Bill cuts police forces and fire services into two single services.

Legislation to create single police and fire services has passed the final hurdle at the Scottish Parliament.

The Police and Fire Reform Bill sets out plans for Scotland's eight regional police and fire services merge into respective single units by April.

The vote passed 101 votes to six, with 14 abstentions.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said the unification is largely cost-driven but pledges to make "a virtue out of a necessity".

The bill was designed to create estimated "efficiency savings" of £1.7bn over 15 years, largely through reducing duplication of senior officer roles and back-office staff.

Mr MacAskill opened the formal debate by saying the Bill offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

He also took a swipe at Westminster, accusing the UK Government of penalising people in Scotland twice through cuts and the threat to impose VAT on the new police service.

"We need to make savings now to protect and improve frontline services, but reform isn't just about saving money," he said.

"We can make a virtue out of necessity. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create the sort of world class, public-focused services we want for Scotland.

"Most have agreed with us that structuring to create single services is the best way to improve and safeguard services.

“Single services will keep all of Scotland's communities safe and strong by creating more equal access to specialist support in national capacity, like counter-terror investigation, murder investigation and firearms, as well as flood rescue."

Criticising Westminster, he said: "The people of Scotland are being penalised twice. Firstly by the Westminster-imposed cuts and secondly by the £25 million-a-year tax grab by the Exchequer.

"That is manifestly unfair and unwanted."

Savings

Questions remain over whether the services are liable for a £30m tax bill. The Treasury has yet to formally notify the Scottish Government whether they will waive a VAT bill incurred through centralisation.

The Scottish Government has said it understands that the answer will be no and has accounted for VAT in its financial projections.

Meanwhile, opposition parties and police bodies fear that the cost-saving reforms will not deliver the projected savings and could see a mass cull of police civilian staff.

Scottish Labour has devised a worst-case scenario that claims the plan could see the loss of 3200 jobs.

Spending watchdog Audit Scotland has advised the Scottish Government to learn from previous cost-saving efforts that fell short of expectations and monitor police and fire budgets closely.

A recent Audit Scotland sample suggested previous public sector mergers could have created just a fifth of their projected savings, with additional costs hidden by poor accounting.

The Unison trade union has criticised the centralisation of police services from the start, raising concerns about a "lack of local democratic accountability", the VAT bill and the de-civilianisation of the force.

Speaking before the Bill's final deliberations in Parliament, George McIrvine, chair of Unison's police staff committee, said: "The Government's plan to maintain an artificial target of police officers, within the budget cuts, will result in the loss of up to 3000 police staff roles.

“Hundreds of police officers are already being taken off the streets to back-fill police staff jobs - jobs they aren't trained to do and at a greater cost - and this will rise significantly if plans go ahead."

Destructive

Dave Watson, Unison's Scottish organiser, said: "Decisions on the future of Scotland's police and fire services are being driven entirely by cost savings and it's time we put the focus back on what the public actually need, want and expect from our emergency services."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: "The SNP have railroaded their centralisation plans through parliament. Every step of the way they have walked over the legitimate concerns of local people about the policing of their communities.

"This Bill is the most destructive change to the face of Scottish policing in a generation. Local forces have built up strong, trusting relationships with their local communities over decades. This will all be lost because of an SNP obsession with centralisation. Policing is a local business. Why does the Justice Secretary think he knows better than local communities?"

While the Scottish Conservatives agreed that cuts were necessary, the party's chief whip John Lamont said there were "serious concerns about the protection of local decision making and whether the proposed savings can be achieved".

On the issue of whether the new services will be liable for VAT, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said there had been "extensive dialogue with the UK Government".

She added: "From those discussions, we understand HM Treasury believe new single police service should not be VAT exempt. The Cabinet Secretary wrote again to HM Treasury on June 22, challenging them to reconsider."

However, a Treasury spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Government designed the reforms to the police and fire service in the full knowledge that the move away from a locally funded system would mean the loss of eligibility for VAT refunds - indeed their own estimates of the impact of reforms assumes this loss.

“The UK Government has worked with the Scottish Government to explore whether an element of local funding could be incorporated into the reforms to enable the police and fire service to continue to receive VAT refunds but the Scottish Government has chosen to stick with their original plans."

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