Against a backdrop of safety concerns, the Scottish Government has recently announced that the merger of BTP Scotland into Police Scotland will be delayed. As yet, no new date has been specified. The decision to delay the merger is both sensible and welcome.
At the same time, it was announced that the BTP integration Joint Programme Board (JPB) will oversee the revised timetable. Based on the difficult integration process to date, this decision seems less sensible.
Established in January 2016 and jointly chaired by Scottish Government and Department for Transport (DfT) senior civil servants, the JPB reports to Scottish Ministers and their Westminster counterparts. In other words, it is not an arm’s length body. Minutes and papers are available via Freedom of Information, including some proactively released by Scottish Government. Strikingly, the JPB only extended its membership to Police Scotland and the BTP in January 2017, while the BTP Federation, another key player, has been consistently excluded from the policy table.
As well as the overlap between the two, the Scottish Government/JPB track record on integration is problematic. From the outset, the Scottish Government’s decision not to prepare a detailed business case precluded proper scrutiny of the original proposal. In other words, without fully knowing the risks, it wasn’t possible for stakeholders to make an informed assessment. As HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICS) later put it:
As the decision to transfer BTP’s functions in Scotland to Police Scotland was a Ministerial decision, no single, detailed and authoritative business case which articulates the benefits, disadvantages or costs of the transfer to Police Scotland was developed.
Nor as the Inspectorate pointed out, was it possible to effectively plan to mitigate the risks. In a prescient observation, the Inspectorate also cautioned against a ‘culture of optimism’ within the JPB that ‘prevented challenges and risks being fully addressed’.
In the absence of robust financial analysis, at stage one of the Railway Policing Bill, the Justice Committee concluded that the supporting Financial Memorandum did not provide enough detail on the expected costs of integration, nor who should pay. In August 2017 – around eight months after publication of that memorandum – the Inspectorate reported that the full costs associated with the transfer of railway policing still had not been assessed. In practice, until the actual integration process – including IT, data access, and terms and conditions for transferring officers – is agreed and nailed down, this is likely to remain the case.
Added to this ongoing uncertainty, the original financial estimates supporting the Bill are now in serious doubt. The fact that the Scottish Police Authority has recently stated that it is unwilling to accept the BTP pension liability suggests that the independent actuarial advice is much higher than anticipated. As the BTP Authority commented on the original calculation, ‘it won’t be this straightforward’.
[SPA Finance Committee] members were appraised of the Independent actuarial and legal advices received for SPA on the proposal and the extent of the financial liability and risks that SPA, as the employer, will have responsibility for on and after transfer.
Discussion on the key financial implications and risks associated with the proposal took place. Finance Committee Members felt that they could not recommend the proposal to the Full Board without the provision of assurances and protections from Scottish Government that they would cover any ongoing liabilities. Members noted that a letter had been sent from the Accountable Officer to Scottish Government to this effect earlier in the week.
It also looks as though the predicted ‘minor’ transitional and project costs are far from minor and already in the millions.
The recently announced delay is a welcome belated opportunity to address the significant gaps in the analysis and scrutiny to date; but the review process needs to change track. It needs to be independent, transparent and at arm’s length from government. Oversight by a board that is co-chaired by senior civil servants and reports to Scottish Ministers doesn’t pass this test and would allow the Scottish Government to mark its own homework.
An independent review, ideally with Audit Scotland on board, would allow confidence and consensus to be built around what remains a contested policy. Recent research by Dr Colin Atkinson and myself has shown that over eight in ten of BTP Scotland officers and staff do not support integration. The finding is important because effective integration will require support from experienced and skilled officers and staff. Independent scrutiny and assurance is a sensible way to help secure this.
Crucially, an independent review process would also provide valuable assurance for Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority. With the original Scottish Government costs and analysis now in doubt, any commitment to a new ‘go live’ date without a full business case and robust independent scrutiny would be a significant financial and reputational risk to both organizations, as well as a considerable risk to the public purse. In a nutshell, an independent review is in everyone’s interests.