SINCE ENTERING Parliament last May, I’ve noticed the frequency with which the Scottish Government sets policy in an evidential vacuum. Nowhere more than in the proposal, introduced by Bill in December 2016 by “invisible” Justice Secretary Michael Matheson to merge British Transport Police with Police Scotland. This wrong-headed merger will lead to loss of specialism, potentially having a disruptive impact on cross-border policing and passenger safety. The SNP should listen to the endless list of stakeholders, security experts and consumers who have warned against it.
The BTP is a specialist railway policing entity, which according to Railway Magazine, understands the industry’s safety culture and operations. It is “considered part of the ‘railway family’”. Funded almost entirely by Train Operating Companies, Network Rail and London Underground, it covers the UK network and employs specialist officers intended to prevent crime, patrol stations, deal with incidents whilst minimising delays and disruption.
The Smith Commission recommended devolving the functions of the BTP, but despite nobody recommending a merger, in 2015, the Scottish government said: "…we believe the functions of the British Transport Police should be integrated within [Police Scotland]. This will ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland".
So will the merger deliver “efficient and effective delivery”?
Not according to the Rail Delivery Group, representing Network Rail and train operators, which says integrating the service is not in the interests of passengers.
Nor according to the British Transport Police, who warn a “deep and clear understanding of the unique requirements of the railway” will be lost.
Nor the British Transport Police Federation, who warn of “potentially life-threatening” consequences.
Nor ASLEF, who state the British Transport Police’s “special expertise” will be lost.
Of all letters sent in from officers and staff, not one supports the merger.
The British Transport Police has calculated that fatalities responded to by officers inexperienced in railway policing take 50 per cent longer to deal with; cable theft offences take 33 per cent longer and “there is well-defined evidence that a non-specialist force is less able to provide the consistent levels of service that… dedicated policing… offer”.
The Samaritans highlight the specialist skills the British Transport Police have in dealing with suicides, as well as traumatised staff in the wake of train line deaths.
Concerns articulated particularly by CrossCountry that, post-merger, British Transport Police officers will be deployed to non-railway duties in an attempt to fill funding and resource gaps, leaving the network diluted and under resourced.
According to British Transport Police Deputy Chief Constable Hanstock, “We can swing into place automatically, without any control or negotiation, [in] response to [a] disruption” whilst there is “a level of confidence that British Transport Police will hand the service back to the train operator within 70 minutes”.
The RMT have said the merger will result in an “inferior policing service”, a serious concern given that the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee heard recently how decades of experience of dealing with IRA terrorism will be lost.
Perhaps most damningly, the main service operator agrees. ScotRail – citing the Dutch experience – warned of “a loss of specialism” as a result of withdrawal of a dedicated railway police service and integration with the national police force.
And what of the logistics? Following such a merger, the railways would be policed by a dedicated, specialist force south of the Border and by Police Scotland, North. From British Transport Police’s current nationwide operation with the same command and control across the board to a split system under which the ability to track and monitor the movements of potential offenders or indeed manage a cross border issue with a disrupted control infrastructure would be an immense challenge: an incident occurring Northbound at Berwick but continuing into Dunbar is whose jurisdiction?
There will be confusion and delays to crime-solving arising from two forces operating across Britain; to say nothing of UK British Transport Police officers not having legal jurisdiction to operate as constables in Scotland. As Margaret Mitchell MSP pointed out, British Transport Police officers are trained and authorised to carry Tasers; yet in Scotland only specialist firearms officers are so armed. Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins suggested British Transport Police officers dealt with "25 to 30 bomb threats a month" due to abandoned baggage, and hundreds of incidents where people are either "restrained from jumping or removed from the tracks, in close proximity to death".
And if you are nervous, try not to think about the implications for specialist train services including trains carrying nuclear weapons, MOD trains and the Royal Train, currently operated on an “end-to-end” route basis by the British Transport Police, having to switch officers and Force at Carlisle.
Deputy Chief Constable Hanstock remarked “We have not been able to identify any operational or economic benefits”. In December 2014, the BTPF’ chairman, George Lewis, described merger as unjustified and unjustifiable.
It all begs the question: if it’s not broken, what is the SNP trying to fix?
Those less charitable than I might suggest it is a relentless drive to cut ties with anything that happens to include the word “British”.
Perhaps it is a further symptom of the relentless drive for centralisation at Holyrood?
Or is the answer as simple as the Smith Commission said devolution could happen, the Government took a position and now can’t be seen to wind back from it, even absent the evidence which seems lacking from so much of its policy?
Scottish Conservatives do not oppose the devolution of the British Transport Police but we do oppose the merger with Police Scotland. We argue for improved scrutiny and accountability arrangements, alongside a closer alignment of British Transport Police policy to Scottish policing priorities. The Transport Minister asked me in Chamber whether I would suggest an alternative. The answer has already been given by the British Transport Police. Isn’t it time the Scottish Government started listening to those who know what they’re talking about?
Liam Kerr MSP is the Conservative spokesman for transport and infrastructure