By Kath Murray

Police Scotland is in an exceptionally difficult financial situation, exacerbated in part by the failed i6 IT programme and a £76.5 million VAT bill it cannot reclaim. The economic benefits of the single service are looking decidedly ropey.

Set against a tough economic backdrop, there is a costly proposal on the horizon that the Scottish Government would do well to avoid: the integration of British Transport Police (BTP) operations in Scotland into Police Scotland.

Following the 2014 Smith Commission report, the Scotland Act 2016 transferred legislative competence in relation to railway policing in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. The 2016 Act gives the Scottish Parliament the ability to determine how, and by whom, railway policing services will be delivered. Options for devolving BTP range from lighter touch administrative changes that provide Scotland with a greater say in decision-making to the full integration of BTPs function in Scotland into Police Scotland. The latter option will require primary legislation and is favoured by the Scottish Government.

The case for devolving BTP to Scotland is not new. Signalling an apparent culture clash between BTP and Scottish policing, in 2007 the then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill expressed concern that BTP officers had stopped and searched around 14,000 people and vehicles between July and December, an average of 84 searches per day. As Mr MacAskill put it: “Whether your forefathers fought at the Battle of Bannockburn or whether they've come from the Indian sub-continent, or south of the Border, if you're behaving by the law, you're entitled to be treated with respect, not to be routinely stopped, harassed, and investigated.”

Drawing on similar sentiments, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson later put forward the case for devolution premised on Scotland’s "distinctive approach to policing". In practice, this hazy ideal of cultural differentiation is unlikely to carry much weight. Policing is influenced by many factors and there is no singular style on either side of the Border. In the same year that BTP recorded 14,000 stop searches in Scotland, Strathclyde Police recorded more than 400 searches each day, with a seven per cent detection rate.

The Scottish Government position is premised on the desire to locate accountability and investment decisions in Scotland and to bring major policing functions under a single command structure. By dint of its investment in ScotRail, Serco Caledonian Sleepers and Network Rail, it is the principal funder of railway policing in Scotland.

On the other side of the coin, the integration of BTP into Police Scotland will incur economic and operational costs. The task of ironing out two sets of pay structures, conditions and pension arrangements will not be straightforward. Also, as the BTP Federation points out, its members chose to join BTP, not Police Scotland. New funding mechanisms and contractual arrangements will need to be agreed with train operators. There are BTP assets to deal with, including 15 equipped premises, adding to the headache of the Police Scotland estate.

Accountability for railway policing would pass from the British Transport Police Authority (BTPA) to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA). This sizeable task calls into question the capacity and capability of the SPA to oversee the transfer. BTPA is a specialist, well-established organisation, whose board is comparable in size to the SPA. The SPA is a relatively new organization, still adapting to its governance role. In addition, the SPA will most likely be expected to manage an estimated £92m pension liability administered by the BTPA.

There are operational and strategic reasons why BTP operates most effectively as a single, dedicated operator, including the provision of a co-ordinated, cross-Border response to terrorism. These advantages have been outlined in several reviews. As former BTP Commander in Scotland Stephen Mannion observed: “Every review came to the conclusion that policing the railways is a unique role and that the public are best served by a dedicated railway police service.”

There is a case for strengthening the role of the SPA in relation to BTP strategy and planning but the proposal to break up BTP and absorb its Scottish functions into Police Scotland is a different matter. The experience of police reform in Scotland to date has been exceptionally challenging. Further structural reform will tie up scarce resources at a time of intense financial pressure and wider political uncertainty. Without a tightly defined set of operational advantages, detailed costings or tangible gains, the case for full integration remains to be made.

Dr Murray is an independent criminal justice researcher.