MINISTERS have defended the deployment of armed police officers to more than 5000 routine incidents last year amid concerns at Holyrood.

Community safety minister Ash Denham said allowing armed officers to attend routine calls was a “sensible use of police time”.

A BBC Scotland investigation found armed police attended 5250 incidents that did not require a firearms response after a change in policy allowing them to do so.

The officers were carrying handguns and Tasers, and also had access to a semi-automatic G36 carbine rifles and a launcher for rubber bullets.

Armed officers helped find more than 3,500 missing or vulnerable people since their role was extended last May, and provided medical assistance at over 600 incidents.

They also dealt with more than 1,000 road traffic matters including collisions, speeding and drink-driving, according to Police Scotland.

Ms Denham said the deployments were “an operational matter” for the Chief Constable, overseen by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

She said 524 of Police Scotland’s 17,000 officers were armed, and they were involved in around 0.3 per cent of the 1.8m incidents the force responded to last year.

She told MSPs: “Changes have allowed armed officers to utilise their core policing skills and attend incidents where speed of response or vulnerability was a key factor”.

However she also said the SPA was keeping the policy under review and would discuss it at its board meeting later this month.

Green MSP John Finnie, a former police officer, said the SNP was “clearly giving the green light to more overt arming, including the use of Tasers”.

LibDem MSP Liam McArthur said: “Officers and the public they serve are rightly proud of the ability of the police to do their jobs day in day out without carrying guns.

“The previous model adopted by the majority of legacy forces saw firearms officers storing their weapons in the boot of their armed response vehicles. It was discarded with very little thought when Police Scotland was first established. It was done so quietly that the SPA didn’t even realise it had happened.

“When police chiefs reflect on how the current policy is operating later this month, I hope that they will reconsider whether discarding this model so quickly was the right thing to do.”

But Tory MSP Liam Kerr said: “These are highly-trained individuals operating at the very top of their careers. There’s far too much pretend outrage about this issue. Police Scotland made it clear this was going to increase, and that is what happened.

“It’s also worth remembering most people are pleased to see a police officer when they report a crime, and don’t care whether they are armed or not.”

Ms Denham was deputising for Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, who the government confirmed was on paternity leave following the birth of his first child, a daughter Amal.

Meanwhile, official statistics showed there were the equivalent of 17,251 full-time officers on 31 March, 77 up on the previous quarter and 81 up on the year. When the SNP came to power in 2007, there were 16,234 full-time equivalent officers.

SNP MSP Rona Mackay said the steady numbers sharply contrasted with England and Wales, where 20,000 officers have been cut since the Tories came to power in 2010.

She said: “I’s a tale of two governments - an SNP Government at Holyrood working tirelessly to make our streets safer and an austerity obsessed Westminster government causing irreversible damage to public services.”

Labour MSP Daniel Johnson said: “An increase in officers is welcome, but our hardworking police officers are not getting the resources they need, with Police Scotland being amongst the poorest funded forces in the UK for capital spending.

“That means poorer equipment, vehicles and IT infrastructure. You can’t keep people safe on the cheap or cut corners when it comes to police funding.”