By Peter Urpeth
Photo Above: Denise Christie © FBU Scotland on Twitter
Ahead of its march and rally to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has called for an end to cuts to the fire service, and for the Scottish Government to use its tax-raising powers to fund public services across Scotland.
Scottish Secretary of the FBU, Denise Christie, made the demands as final preparations were being made in Edinburgh for the No More Cuts rally, being organised jointly with the Scottish TUC.
Denise Christie said: “Tomorrow, we are saying stop the continued year-on-year budget cuts to the Scottish fire and rescue service, and guarantee a period of long-term investment.
“We’ve seen year-on-year real-terms budget cuts of nearly £60 million to the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service. That’s unsustainable,. Fire fighters morale is absolutely at an all-time low, and the march on parliament takes our campaign to the parliament door. ”
Over the last three years, the fire and rescue service has seen the loss of 700 front-line fire fighters as a consequence of cuts to its budget approaching £60 million to its budget.
But controversy surrounds the VAT liability the service acquired when a unified fire and rescue service covering the entirety of Scotland was created in 2013.
Since that time, the service has paid more than £30 million in VAT to the UK government.
With the Westminster budget due today, the FBU is hopeful that the VAT liability will be overturned, but Denise Christie claimed that a VAT return would not end the service’s budget crisis:
“The Scottish Government’s own figures show that the £10 million a year in VAT could potentially fund another 337 fire fighters’ jobs. So we’d very much welcome the VAT exemption – and we’re hearing today that we might get that VAT exemption.
“That VAT exemption is probably about £10 million a year, which is still less than the budget cuts we have seen. In the last three years there could have been a potential of £30 million pounds in VAT, but the budget cuts have been around £60 million. But ending the VAT liability is only good if that money can be guaranteed to be reinvested back into the fire service. We cannot have that money coming back to the Scottish Government and they then use that money on something else.”
In reply to an urgent question from Labour’s Claire Baker MSP to the Scottish Parliament at the end of October, Cabinet Secretary for Community Safety Annabelle Ewing MSP, defended the Scottish government’s record on the service, saying:
“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.”
Last week the FBU were among the trade unions who supported the march on parliament by workers from closure-threatened Bi-Fab yards in Fife and the Western Isles. The march saw more than 1000 workers from the yards and supporters join a rally at the parliament’s door, which was addressed by leaders of the GMB and Unite the Union, with representatives of the education and other sector trades unions.
Gary Smith, secretary of the GMB in Scotland, described the march as “the greatest display of trade union unity in Scotland in a generation”.
Denise Christie added:
“It is important that we are out there campaigning and supporting other unions, and it is good for our members to see other unions supporting us. We support the STUC’s campaign on progressive taxation – the only way you can fund public services is to have a progressive taxation in place in Scotland.
“We’d like to see the Scottish Government using the powers they have in Scotland to properly fund public services – including the fire service – in Scotland.”