500 more police for front line

AN EXTRA 500 police officers are to be recruited across Scotland, after the SNP government agreed to a last-minute change to next year's £30 billion Budget Bill.

In an attempt to secure Tory support, the administration agreed to change the Budget, diverting 10 million from prisons, road maintenance and health to boost police recruitment.

The Conservatives have been pushing for an extra 500 new police officers, and SNP ministers will hope that last night's concession is enough to get their support.

John Swinney, the finance secretary, also said he would find 4.3 million to boost a climate-change fund, in a move that he hopes will ensure the support of the two Green MSPs in the parliament.

With Tory and Green support, the SNP would have enough votes to get the Budget passed in the crucial vote on Wednesday.

The decision to recruit an extra 500 police officers represents a major U-turn for the SNP which, in an election pledge, had promised 1,000 more officers. This was later watered down to 500 officers, using retention and redeployment to take the total up to 1,000 police officers. The new total restores the original manifesto pledge.

An additional 40 million over three years will be found to double that commitment, taking the total invested in new police officers from 54 million to 94 million over the next three years and recruiting 1,000 officers.

However, both the Conservatives and the Greens refused to give their backing to the budget last night, insisting, instead, they would assess the proposed changes over the next few days and make up their minds on Wednesday.

There will now be more detailed discussions between ministers and both parties over the next few days, as the Scottish Government tries to win over the Tories and Greens with other concessions that do not need full amendments.

The Tories still want progress on tackling drugs and business rates, and the Greens want cuts in road developments.

Mr Swinney published his proposed amendments to the budget last night – the last possible opportunity.

The changes include:

10 million extra for new police officers – 2 million will come from extra efficiencies in the prisons budget, 3 million from the roads maintenance budget and 5 million from the ehealth budget. Ministers stressed that the ehealth initiative – IT systems for patients' records – would still go ahead but it would be "reprofiled" over a longer time;

4.3 million for the climate challenge fund. This will be given to community projects to tackle climate change. The money will come from start-up funding that was given to Registers of Scotland, but which ministers believe is no longer needed.

Derek Brownlee, the Tories finance spokesman, said: "We are glad that the government has addressed the issue of police numbers – a significant victory for the Scottish Conservatives.

"However, before we can conclude our overall assessment of the Budget, we need to know what action the government proposes to deal with our concerns on business rates and drugs policy.

"It is possible these concerns may be addressed by measures which do not require a formal amendment to the bill."

Patrick Harvie, for the Greens, said: "This is still not a green budget. While it certainly has seen improvements, it still fails public transport users, and we can't accept that.

"To avoid his Budget falling next week, John Swinney is still likely to have to look in his hat for at least one more rabbit."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government refused to accept that ministers had performed a U-turn over police numbers.

He added: "We are being responsive to parliament as a whole. This goes significantly beyond our previous position. One thousand extra police officers will be recruited."

The 10 million announced for 2008-9 will mean 300 officers for the first year, with the other 200 officers coming in the two subsequent years.

Mr Swinney suggested there may be more concessions.

"I will continue to consider the recommendations of the finance committee and explore ways to deliver a budget that can command the support of parliament," he said.

"It is now down to parliament to vote on these proposals when the bill reaches stage three next week."

HOW THE SUMS ADD UP

10 million extra will be spent on new police officers

5 million of this will come from the e-health budget

3 million will come from the roads maintenance budget

2 million will come from efficiencies in the prisons budget

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