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Centralisation plans under fire

Tavish Scott

GOVERNMENT plans to centralise Scotland’s police and fire services run by single authorities have been condemned by the northern isles’ two MSPs.

However one local councillor and police and fire board member said local politicians would have to accept the change and get the best deal for Shetland.

On Tuesday justice secretary Kenny MacAskill  published the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill, which will create one police force and one fire and rescue service to serve the whole country.

Mr MacAskill said the SNP manifesto pledge to create single emergency service authorities would save the country £1.7 billion over 15 years by eradicating duplication.

Despite his assurances that local councillors would have a direct say over policing and rescue services in their area, Liberal Democrat MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur have labelled the plans “downright dangerous”.

Speaking from Lerwick, Mr Scott said the changes would leave Shetland with fewer police and fire officers. “These are mad, bad and downright dangerous plans,” he said. “They put our excellent local and responsive policing and island fire stations at risk.

“A single national police force will be controlled by central government. The chief police officer of Scotland, inevitably based in Glasgow, will worry rather more about Old Firm football matches than policing Commercial Street on a Saturday night.”

He also questioned whether a nationalist government would ask an English police force to run an inquiry into misconduct, while at the moment different Scottish forces can investigate each other.

Liam McArthur.

“So there may be no check now on a government controlled force. That is profoundly disturbing,” he claimed. “These nationalist proposals that they will railroad through Parliament are illiberal, authoritarian and the worst kind of central belt centralisation.”

Mr McArthur added that the bill represented “a huge power grab”, which put at risk “the responsive, community-based approach to policing we have come to expect locally and indeed the future of retained fire stations on some of our smaller islands”.

He said the legislation had raised concerns throughout rural Scotland, who thought they would take second place to central Scotland concerns, and would need thorough scrutiny before becoming law.

However Mr MacAskill insisted the plans would increase local involvement, giving entire councils a say in the way services are run locally than at present where a handful of councillors attend regional boards meetings.

“There will be a stronger connection between communities and their local police and fire and rescue services, with designated local senior officers and a statutory duty on both services to provide proper local provision,” he said.

“I expect to see the local commander and local senior officer coming before the council to explain and answer questions about police and fire services in the area.

“Our services will be independent, with no operational control from ministers but subject to parliamentary scrutiny. And our new services will be nothing without the skills and talents the workforce. Staff will transfer to the new services on the same terms and conditions.”

Shetland Islands Council member Allison Duncan, who sits on the regional police and fire boards alongside Alastair Cooper, said that they had been forced to accept the changes and would have to work hard to ensure local accountability remained strong.

“Initially we were opposed to a single police board. When we knew there was no option, we hoped they would let us have three or four regional boards but despite our efforts to get the Scottish government to accept that, we failed,” Mr Duncan said.

“Now Councillor Cooper and myself have to put ourselves at the forefront and fight for the best available arrangement for Shetland. We have to make sure that local accountability is paramount.”

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