CRITICS of a decision to allow police with guns onto the streets have dismissed assurances by Kenny MacAskill that the number of armed officers on routine patrol will not be allowed to increase.

Opposition MSPs and MPs said they were disappointed after the Justice Secretary told Holyrood that Police Scotland chief constable Sir Stephen House had reassured him a maximum of only 275 officers were deployed at any time.

He said the current figure ­represented less than 1.6 per cent of Scotland's 17,000 officers, and that if it ever routinely rose above 2% the force would have to inform both the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and the Government.

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The controversy erupted after officers were seen on patrol with guns in the Highlands

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, called Mr MacAskill's comments 'deeply disappointing'.

He said: "Kenny MacAskill had a chance to show he was able to listen to the sincerely held concerns of many in the Highlands, but instead he has once again turned a deaf ear."

He called for Sir Stephen to show he was willing to listen to the public's concerns about police with guns at a quarterly review.

LibDem councillor David Alston, the deputy leader of Highland Council, said Mr MacAskill had failed to address concerns.

He added: "He gave no explanation as to why armed officers, while on duty, are forced to carry their side-arms at all times, rather than having the discretion to store them securely with their other weapons until they are needed.

"This would be a simple solution to the problem the chief constable has created."

He said that police carrying arms on the streets was a "profound change in policy, which could not be glossed over by a claim that the numbers are small".

Labour's Graeme Pearson, a former director of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said: "The complete lack of transparency and accountability on routinely arming officers is absolutely unacceptable and the Cabinet Secretary must ensure that the Scottish Police Authority is enabled to fulfil its duty in holding Police Scotland and their decisions to account."

Mr MacAskill had said: "There is not a routinely armed police in Scotland and I can assure you there never will be.

"In a democracy it is right that it should be a decision of the chief constable and not a political minister or party."

He said the SPA and the Holyrood sub-committee on policing ensured there were sufficient checks in place.

Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: "The operational independence of the chief constable's role requires him to make decisions that keep members of the public and our unarmed officers safe."

He added Sir Stephen reviewed "intelligence and evidence" from across the country every three month before making a "proportionate decision on the need for armed officers based on this information."

He added: "The decision is informed by a range of factors which includes the need to deliver equal access to specialist resource across the country and a range of intelligence and threat assessments which includes Police Scotland's Strategic Assessment and the Firearms Strategic Threat and Risk Assessment

l Mr MacAskill said the most recent figures showed there were 17,318 police officers in Scotland, a rise of 1,084, or 16.7 per cent, since before the SNP came to power.