THE Scottish Ambulance Service has pledged to slash its spiralling overtime bill by more than £3 million next year.
The agency said it would seek to cut the budget from £7.5m to £4.3m – but insisted there would be no impact on the quality of service.
The SAS said by filling vacancies without delay and attending fewer private events, the reduction would be possible.
However, critics raised concerns that cutting overtime could affect staff and quality of service.
The move was revealed this week when Labour’s shadow health secretary Jackie Baillie raised the matter in a parliamentary question to the health minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Parliamentary documents given in response show the bill rose from £2.6m in 2007-08 to £5.8m the following year, and peaked at £8.3m in 2009-10.
The service said much of the increase was down to paying staff to go on special training and attending major events.
The GMB, one of the trade unions which represents staff, is currently embroiled in a dispute with the Scottish Ambulance Service, as paramedics are not paid during breaks, even if they are cut short by emergencies.
Harry Donaldson, regional secretary for the GMB union, said: “The concern for me would be if we have problems at the moment with paramedics having breaks and the service is seeking to reduce the overtime bill, I would assume that would only make the situation worse.
“There would be more pressure on the paramedics themselves to try to cover the very thing we have a dispute over now, which is breaks.
“The issue is about reducing that bill. While we’re not against that in theory, it cannot be done at the expense of the employees or that of the provision of quality of service to the Scottish public.”
Ms Baillie said: “My concern would be that the ambulance service has been relying quite substantially on overtime on an increasing basis to provide their normal service. Therefore, cutting the budget to make savings may well have an unintended impact on the provision of ambulance services.
“People who live in my community and communities across Scotland rely on services to take them to hospital in emergencies and it would be troubling to think that this kind of reduction may well have an impact on the service itself.”
She added: “With NHS facilities closing because of budget constraints there could well be increasing, not decreasing, pressure on the service, with paramedics having to go to hospitals further away.”
In response, the Scottish Ambulance Service insisted any reduction would free up funds elsewhere in the service and that it does not require as much overtime, having been able to fill vacancies which existing staff were having to cover.
A spokesman said: “The service continues to make every effort to reduce overtime spend, which is used to cover vacancies and absences, private events and special training needs for new initiatives.
“The budget for overtime in 2011/12 reflects that vacancies are being filled as quickly as possible to maintain operational cover within basic pay and there has been a reduction in the requirement to attend private events and arrange special training.
“The budget is subject to revision over the course of the year, dependent on a number of operational factors.”