Ministers will come under pressure when MSPs return from their summer break to agree a full debate on why hundreds of officers have been given the go-ahead to carry holstered handguns, with the other main opposition parties set to back the Labour call.
Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said there was “no common sense” in allowing armed police to routinely patrol the streets after officers carrying guns were pictured on their way to a disturbance at a fast food restaurant in Inverness – one of the UK’s safest cities.
The MSP, who was one of Scotland’s leading police officers before entering politics in 2011, stated ministers and the head of the single Scottish police force had not attempted to make any “substantial justification” for the move.
Pearson said the rules on arming officers “needs to be clarified” before the referendum as he suggested SNP ministers were allowing Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House to make carrying firearms the norm in Scotland by stealth.
The Labour MSP – a police officer for 38 years – also warned an independent Scotland with a majority SNP government in power could drift towards US-style policing where all officers are armed.
Pearson said: “An independent Scotland would have no relationship with the UK environment and the traditional British approach to policing of not arming officers.
“It takes the brakes off and would not recognise that British tradition, which Scotland has contributed a great deal to.
“An SNP administration in an independent Scotland could be consumed by its own power and allow further steps to be taken over arming officers.
“If the decision is that you approach these changes by doing it by baby steps then you could find yourself asking how did we arrive at a situation like that in the US, Spain or France with armed officers.”
The row intensified after House put weapons-trained officers on the beat with guns instead of waiting on standby for incidents. As well as the armed officers pictured as they responded to a call to a fast food restaurant in Inverness there have been reports of armed police at a petrol station and buying sandwiches in Brora, Sutherland.
House faces being summoned before Holyrood’s justice committee next month to explain the change in armed police operations that currently sees 275 dedicated armed officers deployed on a shift basis across Scotland.
The Scottish Police Authority stated there “are no current plans” to challenge House over the policy shift on firearms, which it confirmed is part of his operational responsibilities as head of the force. However, Pearson said a full parliament debate and vote was needed due to the “serious impact on people’s lives” and fundamental change to Scottish policing.
His call for a debate on armed police is backed by the Scottish Conservatives – the second-largest opposition group at Holyrood – with the party’s justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell stating it was “something she was inclined to support”.
Mitchell said: “There hasn’t been a fully transparent debate on people carrying weapons to an ordinary situation and that’s not a good thing for parliament and for Scotland.”
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s office refused to state whether the minister supported the calls for a debate, which the SNP would be able to use its majority to call within days.
Last night, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Armed police officers have been a longstanding feature of policing in Scotland and it is for the chief constable to make operational decisions about where and when to deploy resources.”
• Pressure on ministers over arming of Scots police