Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in 'VAT exemption' call

Fire in Glasgow
Image caption The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was created in April 2013.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has called for exemption from VAT, saying the £10m saved could pay for 350 extra firefighters.

Holyrood's justice committee heard that VAT had been a "burden" on the organisation, which is facing cuts of almost £50m.

The single service did not inherit the exemptions given to the old regional forces when it was created in 2013.

MSPs have appealed to HM Revenue and Customs for it to be reinstated.

The committee was taking evidence on the government's restructuring of the fire and rescue service.

It was told the new transport agency Highways England and UK-wide Olympic legacy organisation London Legacy had been granted VAT exemptions since 2013.

Pat Watters, chair of the SFRS board, said it was the only fire and rescue organisation in the whole of the UK that had to pay VAT."

He said last year VAT cost the service £10m meaning it would not have had to make £10m in savings and would have protected part of the service.

"Will it cover all of the gap? No it won't, but it will certainly go a long way to help us," Mr Watters said.

"I wrote to the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer and every Scottish MP, and copied in my colleagues at the Scottish Parliament for information, and the replies that I got were: there are organisations that are exempt but we are not one of them. No reason was given."

Image caption Representatives from the SFRS and Fire Brigades Union Scotland gave evidence

Committee convener Christine Grahame said the VAT bill was "unjust".

SFRS chief officer Alisdair Hay said the VAT bill was enough to pay for 350 officers, although he would not commit to spending the money on recruitment if the exemption was applied.

He also told the committee the new staffing structure of the single service was a "safe model" which would allow it to continue to meet casualty and safety targets, but agreed with union observers that it may not be the "best model".

The SFRS is looking to cut nearly 200 firefighters.

It comes after figures revealed in February that there were 290 fewer firefighters - a drop of 4% - in the year after the merger of eight former regional brigades.

Stephen Thomson, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union Scotland, told MSPs he was concerned further cuts would compromise safety.

He said: "If there were more resources then I believe there should be more firefighters to produce the best practice, not just the minimum to ensure safety.

"We are extremely concerned about the cut to the fire service budget.

"I do believe that if this continues you will not have the frontline service, and there will be a reduction in the frontline, not only in numbers but in outcomes."

The video for this evidence session is available to watch now at BBC Scotland's Democracy Live website.

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