By Kath Murray, Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh

WITH spiralling costs and a raft of unresolved problems, the integration of the British Transport Police (BTP) into Police Scotland is looking decidedly shaky. As Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone recently confirmed, it is now clear that full integration cannot be achieved by April 2019 as intended. Planning for a longer-term, phased process is currently under way; however this will require access to BTP structures and assets, which isn’t part of the original arrangement with the BTP.

Failure to meet the merger deadline is principally due to the complexity of the task in hand (arguably coupled with misplaced confidence in some quarters). With less than 15 months until integration, unresolved issues include agreements with rail providers, information and communication technology, asset allocation and access to BTP data and systems.

Separately, the merger in itself carries sizeable risks, including risks to the travelling public and railway industry. This is not a criticism of Police Scotland: it is the simple corollary of a non-specialist force taking on a specialist and long-established policing function.

As HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland points out, the integration of the BTP is different to merging the legacy Scottish forces, not least because the BTP has a commercial imperative that distinguishes it from Police Scotland. In practice, integration involves partially extracting one part of a specialist organisation, integrating it with a different type of policing organisation, and then tacking it back onto the original organisation to secure seamless cross-border policing. All of which raises the question, to what purpose?

In the current circumstances, it’s worth revisiting the strategic aims of the BTP merger. The Scottish Government states that integration is expected to achieve three key benefits. First, to ensure that railway policing is accountable to the people of Scotland. Second, to secure direct access to Police Scotland resources. And third, to “future-proof” against Conservative proposals for an infrastructure police force consisting of the BTP, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence Police.

Set against a ticking clock and a backdrop of escalating problems, the critical question at this late stage is whether full integration is the best way to achieve these aims. The choice now facing the Scottish Government is exceptionally difficult. Whether to continue along the same path, accruing risks and costs along the way, with no guarantee of successful integration. Or to re-evaluate the current direction.

Arguably the most sensible policy path is that set out by the BTP in 2015: to increase accountability for railway policing in Scotland on a statutory basis (as per the first benefit) and facilitate greater access to Police Scotland resources (as per the second benefit) without full integration. In this way, the intended benefits can be achieved, at minimal risk to railway policing or to the public on both sides of the border. The third benefit – “future-proofing” – no longer applies, since the infrastructure proposal no longer appears to be on the table.

This option would need further work from the BTP. A stronger focus on Scotland is required, as well as improved accountability and more joined-up ways of working. In some ways, it might be argued that the BTP’s London-centric focus and relative lack of engagement in Scotland acted as an open goal for the Scottish Government.

The latter option is clearly uncomfortable for the Scottish Government and will carry reputational costs. Still, this shouldn’t take precedence. What really matters here are the risks to public safety and the costs to the public purse. These core issues are fundamental government responsibilities and should be at the heart of any discussion as to what happens next.