Integrating British Transport Police on a ‘shoogly peg’

In March 2015, shortly after the Smith Commission recommended that railway policing in Scotland should be devolved, the Scottish Government announced its intention to integrate British Transport Police (BTP) into Police Scotland.

At the time of writing, a consultation as to how BTP should be integrated is underway. This, of course, is entirely different as to whether BTP should be integrated, a decision that has principally played out behind closed doors. When debating the proposal in the House of Lords, a nonplussed Lord McClusky remarked, “We do not know where it came from or where it was supported.”  Similarly, Dr Genevieve Lennon states, “it is clear that this radical decision was taken without public consultation or public – or at least publicised – debate”.

I have flagged up some of the uncertainties and risks involved in a Herald opinion piece and argued that the Scottish Government would do best avoid a merger in light of the current financial and related operational pressures facing Police Scotland. This prompted a bit of debate on Twitter, for instance, on the value of public consultation (was this always necessary?) as well as the possible financial benefits. For the record, I think that the original decision should have been open to consultation. Scottish Government consult on a wide range of policies (for example, there is currently a consultation on the status of Ayrshire Early New Potatoes) and the question of who polices the railways is clearly of public interest.

Despite the punchy Herald headline (‘The case is compelling to retain a dedicated railway policing service’) the article concluded that the case for full integration was still to be made. In part, the thinking behind the article was underpinned by the experience of police reform to date, and how at times, a lack of detailed planning and information had impeded progress.

Can Police Scotland cope even now?

The size of the challenges still facing Police Scotland also underpinned the analysis. A recent review of police and fire reform observed that the process to date had involved consolidation and integration, and that the actual transformation of Scottish policing was yet to come. This, the researchers cautioned, would entail challenges ‘at least as significant as those already encountered in integrating the services.’

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see the logic in saddling Police Scotland with more structural upheaval. As ex-SPA Board Member Brian Barbour put it on Twitter, “Police Scotland has enough on its plate”.
Whilst the integration of BTP into Police Scotland looks like a done deal, the Scotland 2016 Act does not state that BTP will be broken up and there will be a separate Scottish force. Primary legislation will be required to achieve these aims, and the Scottish Parliament should carefully consider the costs and gains.

As the Herald article suggested, the aim of the merger is to locate control and accountability for railway policing in Scotland. The Scottish Government also has a financial stake in railway policing; BTP is primarily funded by the rail industry on a ‘user pays’ basis and the Scottish Government contributes around 56% to rail industry income in Scotland. More loosely, the Scottish Government maintain that the  ‘introduction of Police Scotland leaves the position of the BTP in Scotland incongruous’ and that the ‘timing is right’ for reform. A questionable, more politicized rationale that refers to Scotland’s ‘distinctive approach to policing’ has also been aired.

Looking at the risks involved, BTP does not operate on a geographic basis in the same way as civil policing. To state the obvious, railways are interconnected. An incident in Newcastle may well impact further up the line, say in Edinburgh. As such, it makes sense that operational policing follows the same linear logic, based on a consistent standard of policing. In a sharply worded response to the Scottish Government case for support, BTP and the British Transport Police Authority (BTPA) state: “It is highly unlikely that mutual aid between forces would make ‘greater operational sense’ than the seamless cross border policing arrangements that exist now”. Also, as Dr Lennon notes, a series of reviews since the early 2000s have all argued that that BTP functions most effectively as a cross-border force.

Quis custodiet?

There are risks around governance. BTP are accountable to a board that is equal in size to the SPA, whose members are required to represent views from the railway industry or passengers. Scotland currently contributes around £176k per annum towards the BTP Authority [see 1.51]. Whether the SPA, a relatively new organisation, has the expertise or capacity to take on the governance of BTPs functions in Scotland, or how much this replacement function would cost, is not at all clear.

These points take us back to the guiding principles laid out in the Smith Commission agreement: that the package of powers ‘should not cause detriment to the UK as a whole or any of its constituent parts’. On this, the proposed integration of BTP into Police Scotland may be on a shoogly peg.

For starters, there are likely to be merger costs related to property assets and occupancy, negotiations on pay and conditions, pension consolidation, consultancy, legal and financial advice, and management time.  Existing agreements with rail providers will need to be unpicked and renegotiated.

There may however be advantages to the private sector. For instance, Professional Security Magazine advises its readers that security entrepreneurs “should be looking at the opportunities that will inevitably follow on from the dismantling of the BTP north of the border.”

Costs and benefits

On the plus side, there is the suggestion that the merger will save the Scottish Government around ten million per annum, although strikingly, this figure has been aired on Twitter and is not cited in the Scottish Government consultation. The figure relates to BTP’s overhead or indirect charges (around 9.8m) which covers a range of functions from training and administration, to various central departments, including CID and counter-terrorism support [see para 11.2]. Putting aside the highly questionable line of argument that taking on additional training and administration, as well as integration with rUk counter-terrorism and CID departments will come at minimal additional cost to Police Scotland, it is worth trying to unpack this figure in more detail.

The direct saving will presumably pass to Scottish rail providers (as BTP’s main funders in Scotland). Given that the Scottish Government contribution to the rail industry income is 56%, this suggests a proportionate saving closer to £5.5m – before factoring in the merger costs, both one-off and ongoing. To be clear, there may be an altogether different arrangement, one that delivers value for money. The difficulty is that, as it stands, neither the estimated one-off transfer costs nor estimated ongoing operational and governance costs are clear. When questioned on the no-detriment principle in April 2016, Lord Dunlop, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland stated: “I do not think we can be specific on the costs until we know what the structure will be”.

Putting the onus on BTP, the Scottish Government have stated that ‘a case for a cross border police service that outweighs the arguments for integration on a national geographical level has not been presented’ [p.8]. Conversely, BTP and BTPA state: ‘The proposal to use Scotland as a ‘test bed’ for an integrated policing solution is not supported by any evidence as to how this would work or how it would be progressed’ [11.3]. When pressed for detail as to the why, how and when in the House of Lords, Lord Dunlop suggests that that sort of thing will all be sorted out by the Scottish Government further down the line.

I do not underestimate the complexity involved and I hope the Committee will understand if I do not have specific answers to all the questions; we will be working with the Scottish Government to clarify them over the next two to three years. (19 January 2016 col 709)

The House of Lords is right to be worried and, at this late stage, alarm bells should be ringing in Scottish Parliament. As BTP and the BTPA caution, ‘The loss to Scotland of specialist railway policing provision would be very likely to have significant economic, crime and security implications’ [12.1]. Although not aired in the Scottish Government consultation, there are alternative options that would strengthen Scotland’s decision-making powers, without the unpredictability and potential cost associated with full integration. In the meantime, I would still maintain that the timing isn’t right and that the case needs to be made much, much clearer.

Image by David McAllister

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