THE SNP government is under growing pressure to intervene in the row over the arming of Scotland’s police force, as demands mount for a U-turn.
Ministers are being urged to “take responsibility” after the situation escalated last week when armed officers were pictured on their way to a disturbance at a fast-food restaurant in Inverness – one of the UK’s safest cities.
But police chiefs last night insisted that armed officers play a “critically important role” in keeping communities safe and account for less than 1 per cent of officers in Scotland.
There are currently 275 dedicated armed officers deployed on a shift basis across Scotland.
Police Scotland chief Sir Stephen House took the decision to send armed officers out on the beat instead of waiting on standby for incidents.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was informed, but insists this is an “operational matter” for Police Scotland.
But former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell last night became the latest to join the growing chorus of discontent over the routine deployment of armed officers.
Sir Menzies warned that the ultimate responsibility for the change in policy lies with the Scottish Government.
He said: “I never thought I would see the day when uniformed police officers would be carrying firearms openly in the street.
“It is quite true that operational matters are for the chief constable but the framework within which he exercises that responsibility lies fairly and squarely at the feet of the politicians to whom he is answerable. Operational independence can only be exercised with political agreement and direction.
“The present Scottish Government wishes to be known for many things. It would be an irony if the thing for which they were most remembered was their acquiescence in the appearance of firearms as a matter of routine on the streets of Scotland.”
Lib Dem Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander has already demanded talks with Sir Stephen over the incident in Inverness.
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said a full consultation on the issue is needed after claiming the decision was reached after a “private conversation” between Sir Stephen and Kenny MacAskill.
He said: “The Scottish Government must accept responsibility for this issue. It must ensure that decision’s made between the Police Authority and Police Scotland are open and transparent so that we and, more importantly, local communities can judge whether or not these are necessary. The public deserve to know why this decision was made and by whom.
“If, in this society where crime is at a 39-year low, we cannot find an explanation for such a change, big egos must get over themselves and admit they have got it wrong.”
However, Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Crime and Operational Support, Iain Livingstone, defended the practice, saying: “We have more than 17,234 officers working across Scotland to keep people safe.
“Our armed officers play a critically important role in that, from responding to a robbery at gunpoint at bookmakers in Inverness in March to tackling a knife-wielding criminal who recently threatened the public and attacked our officers on Edinburgh’s busiest street.”
Sir Stephen has already agreed to consider a review of the policy when the standing firearms authority is next reviewed alongside the intelligence, following a request by Highland Council.