UK

Emergency police cars given to civilian staff

Police

Seven police forces in England have given company cars with blue lights and sirens to civilian staff not trained to use them, the BBC has learned.

Finance, HR and IT directors were among nine senior staff given vehicles.

One tax expert said the recipients could save thousands of pounds each year as emergency vehicles are treated differently by HM Revenue and Customs.

The forces said the vehicles were part of their wider fleet, and denied they were provided for tax reasons.

BBC News sent Freedom of Information requests to all 45 UK forces, asking them if they had provided civilian staff with cars fitted with emergency response equipment, and received responses from all.

'Not qualified'

The seven forces which said they had were Devon and Cornwall, Merseyside, Humberside, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Avon and Somerset, and Greater Manchester Police.

The main recipients were finance directors, although human resources and IT directors have also benefitted.

In addition, West Mercia and Warwickshire Police said they used to jointly pay for a car for a "director of enabling services", but no longer did so.

None of the vehicles had been used in an emergency, and the drivers of the vehicles were not qualified to use them in such circumstances.

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Image caption South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings said he was disappointed to learn of the practice

South Yorkshire and Humberside Police were the only forces to say they provided two senior civilian staff with vehicles.

In a statement to the BBC, South Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings said the scheme pre-dated the appointment of police and crime commissioners.

"Even so, I am disappointed that I was not made aware of it. I have asked the chief constable to review the policy and I understand that the equipment has now been disconnected, pending removal from the vehicles."

Responses by force

The BBC sent Freedom of Information requests to all 45 police forces in the UK. All responded. Seven forces said they had provided cars for the following civilian personnel:

Devon and Cornwall - Head of roads policing unit

Greater Manchester Police - Assistant chief officer

Humberside (two cars) - Assistant chief officer of HR; Assistant chief officer support

Merseyside - Director of finance

West Yorkshire - Director of finance and business

Avon and Somerset - Chief financial officer

South Yorkshire (two cars) - Director of finance; Director of IT

In addition, West Mercia and Warwickshire forces said they previously provided a joint vehicle to a director of enabling Services.

Humberside Police said one of the vehicles was made available for driver training on a regular basis, while the other supplemented the force's fleet and could be used for special events or royal visits.

The forces all denied the arrangements were part of efforts to reduce their tax bills.

But a report earlier this year from the College of Policing found many police officers felt "a culture of entitlement" existed at senior levels within forces.

A focus group spoke of "staff at chief officer rank being provided with executive cars fitted with emergency equipment", such as blue lights and sirens.

This was despite the fact they would not have been trained or authorised to use the vehicle, and was "apparently motivated by the advantageous tax treatment available for emergency vehicles," officers in the focus group said.

Laura Hutchinson, a director at tax specialists Forbes Dawson, said any potential tax saving would depend on the cost of the vehicle and its CO2 emissions.

'Tax break'

For example, a BMW 5 series saloon costing £30,000 would incur a taxable benefit charge of more than £2,200 for someone paying the 40% tax rate.

However, this fee would not apply if HMRC was satisfied that the vehicle was used for emergency purposes.

"It is clear that the vehicle does not have to be a marked car, which may make this an attractive route to providing tax-free benefits where the rules were not intended to apply," said Ms Hutchinson.

Earlier this week, officers in the West Midlands complained that their siren-less vehicles were hampering efforts to catch criminals.

In 2011, a BMW fitted with emergency response equipment - covert blue lights and a two-tone siren - was stolen from outside the home of the force's former finance director.

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