It's time to pause the merger of British Transport Police with Police Scotland

It's time to pause the merger of British Transport Police with Police Scotland

by Liam Kerr
article from Wednesday 14, February, 2018

THE REMIT of the British Transport Police (BTP) involves policing railways, stations and trains throughout the UK. BTP officers are accountable to the BTP Chief Constable, the BTP Authority (BTPA), and ultimately, the UK Parliament. The BTP is financed by Network Rail, train operating companies and freight operating companies who enter into a contract with the BTPA.

In short, they are completely autonomous to, and separate from, Police Scotland.

Nevertheless, the Smith Commission (tasked with identifying areas for further devolution) recommended devolving powers to legislate on railway policing. Following the passing of the Scotland Act 2016 by the UK Parliament, the Scottish Government announced that it intended to merge the Scottish division of the BTP with Police Scotland. The SNP/Green alliance then codified this by voting through the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill.

This was done even though other models improving accountability were available – ones that would respect the Smith Commission whilst maintaining the basic BTP structure.

Looking at the current timeline, the Scottish BTP division is set to be carved out and become part of Police Scotland by April 2019.

I, and my Scottish Conservative colleagues, respect this decision. It is, however, prudent to pause the current timeline for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there are key concerns that must be addressed before the merger takes effect. As Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) points out, ‘the scope and scale of the challenges and complexity posed by the transfer should not be underestimated….’ 

For example, HMICS describes control room integration as a ‘key risk’ and state that ‘much work will need to be done around the interface of each organisation’s contact, command and control systems and processes, as well as the interface between Police Scotland and Network Rail’s control systems’. 

It is also important to note that integration does not involve merging ‘like with like’. In giving evidence to the Justice Committee, Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone stated that, “The BTP are different in their pensions, entitlements, employee status”. DCC Livingstone also made “absolutely clear” that these issues would not be resolved before April 2019. Nor, when asked, could DCC Livingstone state when the work would be complete. 

In practice, these complications mean that Police Scotland will be provisionally dependent on BTP/A systems, once the legislation takes effect in April 2019. Yet whether the BTP/A are willing to provide this support is not clear. In other words, despite the obstacles raised by DCC Livingstone, there is a risk that Police Scotland may have to go it alone. If this is the case, might there be a risk to public safety? And what are the cost implications?  

Secondly, there are personnel concerns.   

Given that the Scottish Government conceded in November that TUPE does not apply, there is ambiguity over which terms and conditions will be used. As the BTP Federation (BTPF) states, “the complexities of this have been underestimated”. In a recent written response to the Justice Committee Convenor, the BTPF revealed that it had ‘not had sight of any written proposals on pensions, pay or terms and conditions’. 

There are different views as to which organisation will represent transferring BTP officers post-merger. According to the Scottish Government, it will be the Scottish Police Federation (SPF). The BTP Federation (BTPF) is, however, concerned that Police Federation regulations are not compatible with BTP officers’ dual status as employees and constables. 

Added to this, both the SPF and BTPF have written to the justice committee, highlighting a lack of consultation by Scottish Government.  

Uncertainty abounds on pensions too. Serving BTP officers are part of the healthy BTP fund valued at around £24 billion. However, it is understood that the Scottish Government intends to set up a segregated, closed fund for transferring BTP officers, perhaps with retired colleagues. Police Scotland anticipates that £400,000 of police reform funding will be required for set-up costs, plus an ever-increasing and significant administration cost to the taxpayer. The potential pension liability for the Scottish Government remains unknown.  

Weighing all of this up, it is not surprising that an internal staff survey revealed that only one-third of BTP officers say they will definitely transfer to Police Scotland post-merger, with the remainder considering leaving, retiring or staying with the BTP. 

If, as DCC Livingstone told the Justice Committee, some BTP officers decide to retire before the merger to ensure that their pension terms and conditions are not affected, presumably they will be replaced from within the ranks of Police Scotland. Can Police Scotland really spare officers and train them in time?

Third, on funding the merger, HMICS states that the ‘full costs associated with the transfer of railway policing in Scotland have not yet been assessed, and there is uncertainty among stakeholders as to who will pay these costs’. While the Scottish Government expected the transitional costs to be minimal, already these are running into millions, with further costs to be assigned. 

Also, it appears that the Police Service Agreements (with train operating companies, freight and Network Rail) must be cancelled by March this year as the BTPA is required to provide 12 months’ notice of termination. Rail companies will need to know, during negotiations with Police Scotland, what is happening from April 2019. Again, this is unclear. 

Finally, ongoing issues at Police Scotland may affect the merger.

The challenging period that besets Police Scotland with many of the top team on suspension or, until recently, special leave, could have a negative impact on the handover. 

As for the SPA, it is under its third new leader in four years. While improved accountability is a key aim of integration, the SPA has confirmed that it is not looking to recruit any specialist board members. By contrast, the BTPA board has twelve members tasked solely with monitoring railway policing. 

Above all, public safety should be at the forefront of the Government’s considerations. The simple fact that the merger is between a specialist, well-established force and one which does not enjoy the railway specialism (and is under considerable strain itself) means that integration should not be fast-tracked to meet a pressing deadline.

The BTPF does not feel as though the current climate of Scottish policing lends itself to integrating the BTP. And the Scottish Conservatives agree.

The Scottish Conservatives call for a pause to set a realistic timeframe. The Scottish Government must build a detailed, full and robust plan involving a comprehensive cost analysis that asks whether the aims of integration can be secured through a different route, with fewer risks. Many voices are offering suggestions but the SNP is failing to listen.

It is time to pause, listen and then reconvene before, what the BTPF describes as, a “cliff edge” becomes the harsh reality.

Liam Kerr is a Conservative MSP for the North East of Scotland and shadow Justice Secretary


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