While the recently announced delay to the British Transport Police (BTP) merger with Police Scotland was a welcome relief, it will nonetheless come at a cost that wasn’t accounted for on either side of the border.
The BTP and BTP Authority anticipated a clean break by early 2019. Meanwhile, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) is now expected to meet ongoing transition costs that are currently indefinite, and will invariably involve some very hefty consultancy fees.
To put it bluntly, this isn’t the deal that was agreed by stakeholders, or in the Scottish Parliament.
MSPs passed a Bill underpinned by assurances about minimal transition costs, potential efficiencies, manageable pension costs, engagement with staff and railway industry and ‘a seamless transition of railway policing from the BTP to Police Scotland’. While stakeholders questioned the veracity of these claims at the time, it now beyond doubt that that the underpinning information was deeply flawed.
The projected operational costs are still unknown, principally because it’s still not at all clear how integration will work. There are for instance, serious questions about the ICT required to secure cross-border railway policing. Police Scotland’s own disjointed IT problems are well-documented, while the task of replicated BTP systems north of the border and linking this back to the BTP is fiendishly complicated. There is no evidence that integration will result in ‘more effective operational policing’, as asserted in the policy memorandum. Relatedly, there is still no evidence of buy-in from BTP Scotland officers and staff, most of whom remain hostile to the merger. Instead, there is a real risk that the skills and experience required for successful integration will be lost.
On pensions, the SPA and Scottish Government now appear to be odds as to who will foot the Bill. Having had sight of the actuarial advice, SPA CEO Kenneth Hogg has asked the Scottish Government to meet the liability; Ministers have since confirmed that the SPA will be responsible. The fact that legal advice was only sought after Royal Assent reflects badly on the policy-making process; as the BTP Authority presciently cautioned during the passage of the Bill, ‘need actuarial advice – it won’t be this straightforward’.
What happens next is a major test for the SPA and its independence from Scottish Government.
As it stands, the SPA is being asked to cover indefinite transition costs and a presumably hefty pension liability, neither of which were part of the original deal. The upshot is that the merger is likely to seriously detract from the Policing 2026 transformation project.
The alternatives are that the Scottish Government meet the costs, which will fall on the taxpayer; and/or that the costs hit the Train Operating Companies further down the line, with a potential increase in rail fares.
‘A material change in circumstances’
To borrow from the Scottish Government’s line on Brexit, there has been a significant and material change in the circumstances. The BTP merger isn’t what it said on the tin and, if anything, now looks like a threat to both the future of Scottish policing and railway policing on either side of the border.