I thank my colleague Ben Macpherson for bringing this crucial debate to the chamber, and I welcome the chance to take part in it.
When Ben Macpherson lodged the motion, he received an onslaught of criticism on Twitter, which I was copied into. I did not respond to any of it, because I prefer not to enter antagonistic dialogue on social media.
However, as with Murdo Fraser’s speech, the main thrust of those who support charging Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service VAT—which has resulted in a loss of £140 million over the past four years—appears to be, “We told you so,” and that we were warned before setting up merged services.
My overriding thought on those comments has always been this: does that make it right? If anyone’s answer is yes, I ask them to explain why it is acceptable that Scotland is the only devolved nation to be hit with those punitive charges. As Ben said, everything that Police Scotland or the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service buys costs 20 per cent more than it would cost in the rest of the UK. That is simply outrageous and unacceptable. Its only effect is to starve our vital services of £35 million per year that would enhance law and order, justice and the safety of the public in Scotland.
The UK Government’s hypocrisy on the issue has been astounding. It rightly praises the tremendous work that our emergency services do, while starving them of much-needed resources. It has point-blank refused to reverse the VAT charge, despite there being a clear precedent for doing so. As we have heard, Highways England and academy schools are examples. It is a spiteful and disgraceful way for a national Government to act and there is no excuse for it.
Now would be the best time for Ruth Davidson to use her growing popularity with Westminster and the British establishment to do something useful for Scotland, for once. Will her motley crew of Tory MPs stand up for Scotland? Of course they will not. Why break the habit of a lifetime? I will certainly not hold my breath for that.
It is good to see that Labour has come on board, albeit grudgingly, to ask the Tory Government to hand back our money. Better late than never. It is shameful that, until now, Labour has stood side by side with the Tories and the Lib Dems to Scotland’s detriment.
I am proud of the work that the great forces of our emergency services do to keep us safe and well. Last month, I attended the annual review of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. While discussing the challenges and the ever-growing demand that the service faces, the much-respected chairman of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service board, Pat Watters, stated simply, “We will make it work,” because that is what the emergency services do and always have done, against all odds.
We need the excessive VAT charge to be dropped. It serves only to hamper the efforts of our police officers and firefighters. The people of Scotland deserve better, so I ask the Westminster Government to see sense and end the petty and punitive charge.