British Transport Police/ Police Scotland Merger — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:06 am on 6th March 2018.

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Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 10:06 am, 6th March 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Douglas Ross for securing this important debate.

Members will be aware that recommendation 67 of Lord Smith of Kelvin’s report on Scottish devolution, which was published in November 2014, provides:

“The functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter.”

Furthermore, sections 45 and 46 of the Scotland Act 2016 empower the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the policing of Scotland’s railways and provide for the Scottish Government to be consulted on appointments of senior officers to the British Transport police. That said, I contend, as I am sure would many others, that it is not in the travelling public’s interest to apply those powers and that this is not the appropriate time to bring together the British Transport police and Police Scotland. However, I note and welcome the Scottish Government’s very good decision to put on hold indefinitely their plans to absorb the Scottish division of the British Transport police into Police Scotland. Why would they seek at this moment in time to amalgamate the British Transport police—a specialist, standalone, effective force that apparently operates seamlessly with Police Scotland—into Police Scotland, a force that in recent years, together with the Scottish police authority, has been under increasing public criticism and scrutiny?

I must make it clear that the vast majority of Police Scotland’s frontline officers are to be commended for continuing to serve to the best of their abilities in difficult times, when consistency of high-level leadership may be perceived to be lacking and maintaining staff morale is immensely challenging.

In 2017, the British Transport police set a core budget of around £297 million for policing Great Britain’s railways and kept its price promise to keep budget increases below the retail prices index. It has maintained policing costs at the same level as last year. I doubt that the same may be said for Police Scotland since its inception. The chief constable of the British Transport police reports that more than 7,000 rail passengers and rail staff responded to a public consultation, and 85%—a significant number—of rail passengers were positive about the work BTP was doing at their local station. The satisfaction rating and feedback were apparently similar among the rail staff who responded.

As I understand it, the Scottish Government’s vision, although it is on hold, is for the British Transport police to become a specialist railway policing unit within Police Scotland. However, that unit would be funded differently from the remainder of Police Scotland. How can we be sure that the train operating companies, freight companies, Network Rail and London Underground, which currently provide funding, would continue to do so for a force that was incorporated within another based solely in Scotland? If we cannot be sure of that, might the Scottish taxpayers yet again be burdened with extra financial costs?

Concerns were expressed by the British Transport police authority, who identified a number of potential operational risks associated with the integration, including, in particular, and as mentioned by hon. Members, cross-border issues and staff morale, and the serious issue of pensions. The Rail Delivery Group identified possible additional expenses and a dilution of accountability associated with the Scottish Government’s proposal.

I, for one, am not convinced that those reasonably held concerns have been properly addressed to everyone’s satisfaction to ensure that we achieve British Transport police’s vision of working with industry partners and stakeholders to deliver a safe, secure, reliable and expanding transport system. Will it be maintained at its present, effective level should a merger take place at some time in the near future? I do not think the British Transport police’s effectiveness would be preserved if the merger took place.