SCOTLAND’s fire service could recruit an extra 350 firefighters with the money it is spending on an annual £10 million VAT bill, it has been claimed.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said it was the only fire service in the UK currently paying the tax, from which many large public bodies receive an exemption.
Will it cover all the [funding] gap? No, it won’t. But it would certainly go a long way to help usPat Watters
Members of the fire service were appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee after it emerged the organisation faces a £50m funding gap.
The service has said it is looking at its “frontline delivery model” to help address an 11 per cent cut in its funding alongside a 6 per cent rise in costs.
It also emerged it is dealing with an increase in the number of people committing suicide by setting themselves on fire.
Chief Officer Alasdair Hay said the service was currently investigating why around a quarter of all fire deaths last year had been among those taking their own life.
Pat Watters, chair of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Board, told MSPs: “VAT has been a burden on the organisation. We’re the only fire and rescue service in the whole of the UK that’s burdened by having to pay VAT. Every other fire and rescue service in the UK gets their VAT returned to them or they don’t have to pay.
“Last year it cost us £10m in VAT. That’s £10m that we would not have had to look for in savings within the service. Will it cover all the [funding] gap? No, it won’t. But it would certainly go a long way to help us.”
Mr Watters said he had written to the Treasury on the issue, but had been told his organisation was liable for the tax.
Mr Hay said the money currently being spent on VAT was the equivalent to the salaries of 350 firefighters.
He also called for closer working relationships between the fire service, the police and social services after noting an increase in the number of people taking their own lives in fires.
He said: “About a quarter of our fire deaths last year were suicides and we’ve never experienced that previously.
“Again, there are questions that we are asking in these early stages around mental health issues and how we can play a part in understanding what is behind all of this.
“We always had a few people who would set themselves on fire, but last year we saw a significant increase. It may just be one of these anomalies that occasionally occurs, but we’re having conversations with colleagues in health and social care and Police Scotland to see if this is a pattern.”
Stephen Thomson, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said he was “extremely concerned” about cuts being made to the fire service’s budget.
Mr Thomson said there had been “teething troubles” since the creation of the national service in April 2013 following the merger of the regional brigades.
He said: “It’s been quite a challenging process for us, especially closing control rooms.
“There are benefits to come. I think some of them are some way off, but we are extremely concerned about the cut to the budget. We believe that if this continues there will be a reduction in the frontline service, not only in terms of numbers but outcomes. The duplication [of roles] has stopped and the cuts keep coming. That means that there will at some point be a reduction in frontline outcomes.”