By Bill Heaney

Budget cuts to the Fire Service are putting people’s lives at risk, Labour leader Anas Sarwar told the Scottish Parliament today.

However, despite this criticism and the fact that fire fighters in uniform were protesting outside the Holyrood building,  First Minister Humza Yousaf refused to budge on the SNP’s position in regard to the men and women who are in the business of saving lives in extreme situations.

Mr Yousaf told MSPs: “I do not agree with the point that has been made about cuts. Despite the difficult financial circumstances, which are due to United Kingdom Government austerity, we are providing the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service with more than £368 million this year, which is an increase of £14.4 million on 2022-23.

“If I look at how many firefighters we have in comparison with other parts of the UK, I see that as of March last year there were 11.3 firefighters per 10,000 of the population in Scotland. That compares to 6.1 in England and 8.4 in Wales.

“If I look at the pay, I am pleased to say that I see that firefighters accepted an improved two-year pay offer of 7 per cent for 2022-23 and 5 per cent for 2023-24.

“The most crucial statistic for the public, who are interested in their safety, is that over the 10-year period between 2011-12 and 2021-22 the number of recorded fires dropped by 14 per cent.

“We continue to increase investment in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and to have more firefighters per head than other parts of the UK. Crucially, fires are going down because of the investment that we have made.”

Anas Sarwar hit back: “The First Minister is saying that firefighters are wrong, and is burying his head in the sand.

“The fire service budget is set by the Government, and it has fallen by 22 per cent in real terms over the past decade. The chief fire officer has been clear about where the service is headed. He has said that 780 firefighter posts—between 20 and 25 per cent of the workforce—could go if the Government does not change course. He went on to say that that would impact on response times.

“When fighting fires, every second counts, so why does the First Minister think that he knows better than firefighters on the ground—and the chief fire officer—about how to keep people safe?”

The First Minister pivoted back to the question of finance: “Asa Government, we have increased our investment in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. That is a fact. This year, we have increased the funding by 14 per cent. We have more fire officers per 10,000 of the population than other parts of the UK have. Crucially, the incidence of fires is going down. That is what the public care most about.

“Anas Sarwar is right to say that changes and reforms are being made in relation to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. In relation to those reforms, assistant chief fire officer David Farries said: ‘We’re trying to make sure we get a fire service that’s fit for the communities of Scotland in the future.

“This gives us an opportunity to re-balance and reshape the service in a way that meets 21st Century needs’.

“I think that that is absolutely right. I trust the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to make those changes and to do so in a way that continues to keep people safe. I am not sure why Anas Sarwar does not.”

Anas Sarwar refused to back off: “When it comes to trusting firefighters, it is me, rather than the First Minister, who is standing up here and speaking for firefighters, who are campaigning outside Parliament. Perhaps he wants to go outside and talk to them.

“There has been a 22 per cent fall in the budget in real terms. This Government’s financial mismanagement is already affecting every part of a fire service that is suffering from a decade of neglect.

“In the past 10 years, hundreds of firefighters have been lost, a dozen appliances are now being removed, and the First Minister is ignoring warnings that his Government is putting lives at risk. In the past few months alone, those changes have affected fire stations in every corner of Scotland. If those are not cuts, what is?”

When the single fire service was created, the Scottish National Party said that it would not result “in cutting front-line services.  Was that SNP spin or SNP incompetence?”

The First Minister replied: “Instead of sticking to the spin that Anas Sarwar is continuing to articulate, let’s stick to the facts. The facts are that since 2017-18, there have been substantial year-on-year increases in funding to support the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. On top of that, we have more firefighters per 10,000 of the population than other parts of the UK have. Of course, the number of fires is going down, too.

“Anas Sarwar is right that there has been a decision to withdraw some appliances temporarily. My understanding is that the number is 10 of the 635 operational appliances, which is 1.5 per cent. The independent His Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate in Scotland has provided absolute assurance that the SFRS temporary changes are based on a robust analysis of activity levels, historical demand and, importantly, the ability to supplement any initial response within—this is the crucial bit—an acceptable time-frame.

“We continue to invest in our fire service. I want to thank and pay tribute to the FBU and to our firefighters on the ground. I will continue to promise them that we will, as long as we are in Government, continue to ensure that they get the investment that they need to keep our public safe.”

However, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP earlier this week urged the SNP/Green Government to “reverse years of neglect” of Scotland’s Fire and Rescue Service after analysis by his party revealed that the oldest appliance in the service’s fleet is more than three decades old, with growing evidence of resource pressure and cuts to firefighter numbers.

Scottish Liberal Democrat analysis has found that: 

  • The oldest appliance being used by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) is 31 years old.
  • The actual cost of maintaining SFRS stations has almost doubled over the past five years, increasing from £4,636,179.02 in 2018/19 to £7,268,793.94 in 2022/23.
  • The number of FTE whole-time operational staff (full-time firefighters) dropped from 4,151 in 2012/13 to 3,487 in 2022/23. This is the lowest level in the last decade.
  • The number of FTE retained duty staff (on call firefighters) has dropped from 2,787 in 2012/13 to 2,333 in 2022/23. This is also the lowest level in the last decade.

Last month, the Chief Officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Ross Haggart, indicated that the service needs to make £14 million cuts, which is the equivalent to 399 full-time firefighters.

Mr McArthur, right,  said:  “These findings speak to the neglect suffered by our fire service at the hands of successive SNP governments.  

“They illustrate the scale of the cuts to whole-time and retained duty staff over the past decade, with the Chief Officer warning that significant additional cuts are coming down the line.

“Firefighters put their lives on the line to keep communities, households and individuals safe. The least they deserve is to be properly resourced with suitable and modern equipment. It’s clear from these figures that this may not always be the case.

“The government needs to back our firefighters.  This requires resourcing and equipping the service properly so that it can tackle the challenges it faces day-in, day-out.”

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