Brexit on wheels – taking control of BTP functions

What do Brexit and the transfer of British Transport Police’s functions to Scotland have in common? At first glance, not much. But scratch the surface, and there a number of similarities, at least in terms of principles and process.

Both proposals are underpinned by ideas about sovereignty, identity and accountability, but beset by far more complex practicalities and uncertain outcomes than anticipated. And both have proceeded without a definitive strategy, or evidence of detailed planning. In the case of the BTP, as has been pointed out, the Smith Commission devolved railway policing in Scotland; it did not set out to dismantle the current BTP structure. Entirely coincidentally, the two processes are coterminous: the UK will leave the European Union (EU) in March 2019, and railway policing in Scotland will be decoupled from its counterpart in England and Wales a month later, in April 2019.

For Brexiteers, a key line of argument is that Britain will up longer pay into the EU budget. Similarly, the Scottish Government has highlighted post-integration efficiencies, given that Scotland will no longer contribute towards the BTP’s non-operational costs (these include corporate services, Central Operations, IT and central operational policing resources, such as major crime, counter-terrorism and major incident response). Yet in the case of Brexit, it looks increasingly likely that the economic disadvantages will outstrip the upfront and longer-term savings. Meanwhile, the financial implications of the break-up of BTP remain unknown. In April 2017, the Justice Committee expressed its disappointment at the lack of detail on costs set out in the Scottish Government Financial Memorandum on the Railways Policing (Scotland) Bill, while due diligence on cost and accounts is  scheduled to start after royal assent.

Borderless crime

On the security implications of Brexit, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has cautioned that ‘organised crime and terrorism do not respect borders’ and that existing arrangements may become more cumbersome. Also expressing unease about cross-border arrangements, the BTP has stated that its (non-territorial) infrastructure presents a unique challenge in terms of counter-terrorism, and that a potentially disjointed policing arrangement may weaken public safety and security on the railways.

The task of unpicking BTP’s operations in Scotland is also proving difficult. There are for instance, assets to disentangle, complex financial agreements with rail providers to renegotiate and multiple pension arrangements to sort out (just like the ‘Brexit divorce bill’). Notes from January’s Joint Programme Board on integration refer to a ‘critical need for Joint Leadership’ in relation to its various projects, and urge that there is a ‘clear need for significant progress across all workstreams’. The BTP Federation recently reported being ‘in the dark’ as to Scottish Government plans.

Looking back, the integration of the BTP in Scotland may have seemed like an intuitive move in the run-up to the Police Scotland merger, at least in principle. In 2013, the Scottish Government case for support argued that ‘the timing is right’ and that ‘the introduction of Police Scotland leaves the position of the BTP in Scotland incongruous’.

Four years down the line, and the realities of Scottish policing are very different. The single police service is under pressure on several counts, including finance, its leadership and outdated IT infrastructure. A recent evaluation of police reform describes stretched resources and the adverse impact of organizational pressures on community work. While the risks and complexities associated with extricating BTPs operations in Scotland are now coming to the fore, the advantages look increasingly distant. It is also worth noting that for all the resources, time and effort involved in dismantling the current BTP structure, the plan relates to fewer than three hundred officers and staff working in Scotland.

Twin stab in the dark

To borrow from a report by the joint parliamentary committee on Brexit and national security, arguably the main difficulty with the BTP merger is the lack of detailed advanced planning or cost-benefit analysis – which by the same token, suggests the prioritization of political interests and impulses. Unlike Brexit, however, the devolution of railway policing in Scotland has one potential safeguard attached; that none of the constituent parts of the UK should be adversely affected. This no-detriment principle may be salient given that a) current railway policing arrangements appear to be effective and there is no evidence of a major problem to fix, and b) the BTPA has cautioned that ‘the transfer of rail policing in Scotland has potentially significant financial and operational implications for the Authority and Force’. Whether the no-detriment principle is workable or applicable is a separate issue: as Professor Michael Keating states, ‘determining what should count as detriment will remain politically contentious and technically complex’. With alarm bells ringing on both sides of the border, the break-up of the current BTP structure may put this to the test.


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