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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:47 am on 6th March 2018.

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Photo of Jo Johnson Jo Johnson Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (Department for Transport), Minister of State (London) 10:47 am, 6th March 2018

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Douglas Ross on securing today’s debate on this important subject. I am aware of his long-standing interest in this matter, both as a Member of this House and previously while a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Before setting out the Government’s position, I would like to make a point that I am sure we all agree about: that the continuing safety and security of the travelling public and of the staff who work on our railways must remain our No. 1 priority in this matter.

As hon. Members will be aware, the decision to devolve the functions of the British Transport police honours the cross-party Smith commission agreement, which explicitly set out that

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

The Scotland Act 2016 gives effect to that recommendation. Legislative competence for railway policing in Scotland has been devolved. The Scottish Government have stated their intention to integrate the Scotland Division of the BTP into Police Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation setting out the Scottish Government’s plans for the future policing of the railway. The process of devolution is therefore under way. It is now for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to use the powers they have been given.

For our part, the UK Government are committed to devolution and to delivering the Smith commission’s recommendations in full. We have been working closely and effectively with the Scottish Government, the two police forces and the two police authorities through a joint programme board, which has been established to oversee the delivery process. We want to see a smooth transition to the new arrangements for policing the railways, with the focus on ensuring that the safety and security of rail passengers and staff remain at the forefront of the process and that the UK’s interests are fully recognised and protected.

Significant progress has been made on a number of aspects of integration, including in preparing the secondary legislation that will transfer those BTP officers and staff currently responsible for policing the railways in Scotland to Police Scotland, and on mapping their terms and conditions. Martin Whitfield asked when we would lay the orders in question. We had planned to lay them in the autumn, but given the delay until a new plan and timeline for the project has been determined, we do not know now when we will lay them.

It needs to be said that any deferral will be for a period of one or perhaps more years, because of the contractual arrangements through which policing costs are recovered by the British Transport police authority from train operators. The transfer can take place only at the start of any given financial year, so we need Police Scotland, working with the BTPA, to commit to a specific, achievable deadline by when it will be operationally ready to deliver the transferred functions, as and when it is in a position to actually receive them. That timeline must work for the BTPA, ensuring that the BTP can continue to focus on its critical activities.

We have been very clear throughout this process that it is our intention that the transfer should take place on an as is basis, ensuring that transferring officers and staff see no change in their terms and status. My hon. Friend Ian Murray mentioned pensions. We are currently working with the pension trustees on how best to deliver the commitment that pensions will be preserved. The question is how that can be best achieved while ensuring that costs fall where they should. The UK cannot cross-subsidise police pensions in Scotland after the transfer.

Last month, the joint programme board was advised by Police Scotland and the BTPA that a number of significant operational issues remain to be resolved, and that the scheduled transfer date of 1 April 2019 could not be achieved without undue risk to rail staff and passengers, with further time needed to deliver integration most effectively and safely for railway passengers, staff and officers.

In particular, a number of issues were raised about the integration of critical functions, such as ICT, with Police Scotland’s systems. Police Scotland has found itself unprepared to receive the transfer. Scottish Ministers accepted that advice, and a detailed re-planning exercise, supported by external advisors, will now take place to ensure that robust delivery plans are in place and to establish a new delivery date. That will allow also for increased engagement with both industry and staff.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to listen to concerns and criticism and to agree to delay the transfer. I also recognise the concerns raised by hon. Members about Police Scotland’s ability to take on railway policing. Our No. 1 priority remains the safety of the public, and all parties agree that the transfer cannot take place until it is safe for that to happen. However, let me be clear: this is a delay to an agreed process. The Scottish Government have been clear that the transfer will still happen—that is their decision—but only when they are satisfied that all of the necessary actions have been completed.

I must again emphasise that this is devolution at work. The Scottish Government have the power to take decisions and therefore have to take responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. For our part, the UK Government remain fully committed to delivering the devolution of railway policing, and will in due course bring forward the secondary legislation required in the UK Parliament to enable that to happen.

I assure hon. Members that, as with any effective relationship, we will continue to be absolutely clear and frank with our partners in the Scottish Government as this process continues.