Following the Smith Commission’s recommendation to devolve railway policing to Holyrood, Police Scotland are set to oust the cross-border British Transport Police (BTP) from the Scotland’s railways.
The Smith Commission Report, published last November, recommended authority over transport policing, along with additional tax, borrowing and welfare powers, be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The UK Government included transport policing in their draft settlement and powers are due to be transferred by the end of 2016.
The BTP had reportedly hoped to continue operating in Scotland, but with oversight passed from London to Edinburgh. However, Holyrood believes the continued operation of a UK-wide transport police is not in the best interest of the Scottish people. The specialist police force will therefore be replaced by Scotland’s single service. A spokesperson for the Scottish government said:
“Police Scotland is responsible for all policing in Scotland outwith the railways and we believe the functions of the British Transport Police should be integrated within the single service.
“The BTP provide a specialist function that is recognised and valued by the rail industry and its passengers and it is essential that this specialism is maintained within Police Scotland.
“This will ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland, keeping communities safe and strong.”
Plans to remove the British Transport Police from Scotland are hardly new. In a letter to then UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill wrote:
“I am writing to you to begin a conversation. I would like to explore the potential for the British Transport Police (BTP) in Scotland to become part of a new Scottish policing landscape, within the context of both our Governments’ major current reform agendas in policing and rail.”
Mr MacAskill’s plan was not without criticism and the current government announcement had reignited opposition. Transport unions have been particularly vocal in their opposition with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) leading the way.
“It is sheer arrogance on the part of the SNP Government,” said RMT General Secretary Mick Cash. “That they are ignoring the advice of the BTP and those who work in the railway industry and are forging ahead with plans to merge this important and distinctive policing operation into the wider force.
“Skills and expertise in dealing with the specialist policing needs on the railways would be lost for ever and would result in an inferior policing service which would impact on staff and passengers alike. RMT stands alongside our sister rail unions in opposing these ill-conceived and dangerous plans.”
The question of railway policing in Scotland seems to be a balancing act between specialism and ideology.
However, it is not quite as clean cut a decision makers would have us believe.
A unique landscape and specialised force
Tensions between SNP ministers and the BTP date back almost a decade, with a high profile argument over stop and search policy dominating newspaper headlines throughout 2007.
SNP ministers objected to BTP’s extensive use of stop and search powers – 14,000 incidents were recorded between July and December 2007. Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Politics Show, Mr MacAskill said:
“I think you have to get the balance right and it would certainly appear to me that things are out of kilter.”
“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.
“I’ve certainly had anecdotal evidence, including members of staff, of people going about their work, being pulled aside and interrogated. That seems to me to be unacceptable.”
However, eight years on it is not clear whether the conduct of Police Scotland is significantly different. A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) criticises Police Scotland’s recent record on stop and search. It cites a lack of consensus among Scottish officers over what incidents ought to be recorded as a stop and search, and highlights a lack of official guidance over counting methodology.
The same report commends the BTP’s approach to stop and search, praising a “well developed” approach. The report reads:
“Stop and search was viewed by BTP officers as an intrusive tactic that had to be conducted ethically and legitimately.
“They were keen to uphold the reputation of the force and ensure individuals were being treated fairly.”
Although stop and search is hardly the sole difference between policing north and south of the border, the report raises question as to the practical distinctions between policing ideologies.
In the days immediately after the announcement, Holyrood came under intense pressure from all corners of the transport sector. No voice was louder and no words more cutting than those of former BTP Commander in Scotland Stephen Mannion.
“The railway have been policed by BTP for more than 150 years. In that time, there have been countless reviews of their role by governments – six when I was in charge.
“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.”
Six reviews have come and gone and all concluded the railways were best served by a separate and distinct railway force. Since the 1957 Maxwell-Johnson enquiry, it has been accepted that policing requirements simply could not be met by a civil force.
Holyrood obviously disagrees, believing the national service – the largest police force outside of London – has the capability and resources to adequately provide such a specialised policing service.
We contacted the British Transport Police for a statement but they declined to comment, directing all questioning to their brief public statement on railway policing in Scotland published last month.