By Kath Murray, Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

FOR many stakeholders, the recently announced delay to the British Transport Police (BTP) merger was a relief. Still, work on full integration is ongoing, currently badged as the “replan”.

While the delay itself was unavoidable, it will nonetheless come at a significant cost that wasn’t accounted for on either side of the Border. In England and Wales, the BTP and BTP Authority had agreed to a clean break by April 2019. In Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) is now facing sizeable transition costs, with no end date in sight. At this stage, the only certainty is that this will involve some very hefty consultancy fees.

This isn’t the deal agreed by stakeholders, nor in the Scottish Parliament. Members of the Scottish Parliament passed a bill premised on minor transition costs, potential efficiencies, manageable pension costs, engagement with staff and the railway industry, and “a seamless transition of railway policing from the BTP to Police Scotland”. The delay shows beyond any doubt that this information was piecemeal at best, and at worst, deeply flawed.

In practice, the projected operational costs are still unknown, principally because it’s unclear how integration will work. There are serious questions about the information and communication technology required to secure cross-border railway policing. Police Scotland’s own disjointed IT problems are well documented, while the task of replicating BTP systems in Scotland and linking back to the BTP is exceptionally complex. There is no evidence that integration will result in “more effective operational policing”, as suggested. Relatedly, there is no evidence of buy-in from BTP Scotland officers and staff, most of whom remain hostile to the merger. Nor is there any indication that engagement with BTP employees has improved, as promised by Government. Instead, there is a real risk that the skills and experience needed for successful integration will be lost.

On pensions, the Scottish Police Authority and Scottish Government 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; Scottish Government ministers have since confirmed that the SPA will be responsible.

What happens next is a serious test for the SPA and its relationship with Scottish Government. As it stands, the SPA is being asked to cover indeterminate costs and a substantial pension liability, neither of which were part of the original deal. This is not the “changing of badges” anticipated by Scottish Government officials. The costs are already in the millions and will continue to rise. A recent BTP Authority paper shows that the Scottish Government-led Joint Board on integration is fully aware that the situation is a risk to police reform. What is now unfolding looks like a constitutional crisis for the SPA. Having chosen not to prepare a full business case, the Scottish Government has effectively handed the authority an unknown liability. It is an extraordinary state of affairs.

The alternatives are that the Scottish Government meets 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.

Taking an overview, 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 Scottish policing and railway policing on both sides of the Border. As a matter of urgency, MSPs of all shades should be asking serious questions about the validity of the information underpinning the Railway Policing Scotland Act before integration proceeds any further.