I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposals for the merger of British Transport Police Scottish division with Police Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We had a slight wait for you to take the Chair, but I know better than most that the match cannot start without a referee, so it is good to have you in your place. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time for this debate, as well as all right hon. and hon. Members who supported the application—in particular, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who joined me in front of that Committee to present our case for the debate. I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My wife is a serving police officer: a police sergeant with Police Scotland.
I want to divide my remarks into three sections: the process from the Smith commission to the vote in the Scottish Parliament approving the proposed merger; where the process got to and the pause announced last month; and finally, the next steps and, I hope, the opportunities for the British Transport police Scottish division.
Early in my remarks—before any Scottish National party Members jump up with interventions diligently provided to them by party researchers—I would like to note that the merger of the British Transport police into Police Scotland is wholly different from what was proposed in the Conservative manifesto. I strongly opposed from the outset the SNP plans in Scotland. Our plans in the UK manifesto pledged to protect specialist policing at a UK level by bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and British Transport police. That is a completely different approach from the one supported by the SNP, which is to rip the Scottish operations out of the extremely successful British Transport police and merge them into Police Scotland—which has itself been beset with problems since its inception and formation as an amalgamation of eight regional forces.
Having sat through the various stages of the Bill at the Scottish Parliament, the hon. Gentleman will be more aware than anyone else that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland have gone out of their way to give assurances that the transport police function and specialism will be preserved even after the merger. What is the difference between that assurance and the assurance given by the UK Government?
What is different about that assurance is that the Scottish Government could not even deliver it by 1 April 2019 as they proposed. The assurances were so weak that even the joint programme board had to finally accept that it was not going to happen and the services could not be protected as they had said they would be.
That is not a fair categorisation of what the board said at all. It said progress had been made in some parts of the merger process, but not in others. The hon. Gentleman has not answered my question about what is different about the Scottish Government’s guarantee to preserve the police specialism and the functions for the transport police, and the UK Government’s guarantee.
As an example, the Scottish Government say that they would take the 280 or so full-time equivalent BTP officers in Scotland and merge them into Police Scotland with its 17,234 officers. That would not protect them, because if the officers within Police Scotland who wish to have a specialism in railway policing were first on the scene at a non-railway incident, they would be stuck with that incident right the way through. Currently, if Police Scotland are the first on scene at the railways, they can transfer that to a BTP officer when they arrive and vice versa. They could not do that. That is not protecting the current situation and the good work done by BTP officers in Scotland and across the country.
My opposition and the strong opposition from Scottish Conservatives in Westminster and Holyrood must not be considered as disrespecting the Smith commission and devolution settlement that followed. I agree that the functions of the British Transport police in Scotland should be a devolved matter—I just strongly disagree with the approach taken by the SNP Government.
There were and are other options to devolve the powers, but we know that they were never considered by the Scottish Government. Right from the start, the SNP had a blinkered view on its approach—unwilling to listen to expert advice, which opposed its plans, and unwilling to listen to the views of BTP officers, the British Transport Police Federation, rail unions and rail operators. Basically, everyone with considerable knowledge of railway policing warned the SNP against the plans, but they were ignored and the SNP marched on regardless. It only consulted on its preferred option: full integration with Police Scotland.
That was the first of many failures by the Scottish Government, who were unwilling even to consider alternatives put forward by the British Transport police authority as far back as 2015, which suggested giving increased accountability to the Scottish Parliament and giving the Scottish Government greater power over setting policing priorities. That was put forward by the BTPA, and ignored by the SNP Government, who only consulted on their preferred option.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is going to speak about the SNP policy that we are discussing today—the debate is about the proposed merger of the British Transport police into Police Scotland—or, as the SNP constantly does, does he just want to deflect attention somewhere else, shouting and screaming, “Look over there; don’t look at our failures in Scotland”? The SNP is letting Scotland down. This is yet another example of its centralisation plans, which seem to work in SNP heads and on a bit of paper, but do not deliver for the people of Scotland.
Every proposal was dismissed by the SNP. With the support of the Scottish Greens, the SNP Government forced through their plans. In the face of overwhelming volumes of evidence showing that this was a bad move that would dilute the service currently provided and potentially put rail users at risk, the Bill was passed in the Scottish Parliament. The plans were criticised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland for being entirely political. It also criticised the fact that no business case or due diligence outlining the benefits and costs was or had been prepared by the Scottish Government, saying:
“As the decision to transfer BTP’s functions in Scotland to Police Scotland was a Ministerial decision, no single, detailed and authoritative business case which articulates the benefits, disadvantages or costs of the transfer to Police Scotland was developed.”
That is shameful and unacceptable.
Given that the merger will not in fact be cost-neutral, as originally claimed by the Scottish Government, does my hon. Friend agree that stopping it will not only protect the quality of railway policing in Scotland but save money for hard-pressed Scottish taxpayers, who pay more in Scotland than taxpayers in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I absolutely agree. We were also told that the merger of eight regional forces in Scotland into Police Scotland was going not only to deliver a better service but save money. However, the single police force is struggling because of the financial restrictions put on it by the Police Scotland; it is not saving money as the SNP promised it would.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall for consideration. Does he agree that a workable timeline must be set before allowing a safe transfer that does not compromise public safety? Furthermore, the vital role carried out by the British Transport police must be allowed to continue seamlessly for the benefit of everyone.
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. Safety for rail users and our officers has to be of paramount importance and I will come on to that in my concluding remarks.
One of the issues that I raised in the Scottish Parliament, when I was on the Justice Committee, was the personal track safety certificate and what it covers. Every BTP officer has that certification. Would all 17,234 Police Scotland officers have that certificate? No, because the cost involved would not allow it. There is a safety risk if officers who have not received the certification go on to the tracks.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Police Scotland, and it will be very important for the know-how and full power of the police forces to be combined as quickly and efficiently as possible, to ensure that the benefit of knowledge and experience comes together at the right time.
Absolutely. I will come to the timing in a moment, but there is no doubt that, several years after the merger, Police Scotland is still operating under considerable strain because of it; now is not the time to add to the workload of Police Scotland when it is struggling to manage what it has now.
Absolutely. We have to remember that the joint programme board is made up of representatives of the Scottish Government, the UK Government and Police Scotland. At their latest meeting in February, they all agreed to recommend a pause to the Scottish Government. None of them could see the implementation of integration being achieved safely by 1 April 2019.
The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) takes me back to where we are now, which is the pause. We are in a welcome place: the SNP, Police Scotland and the joint programme board all accept that the implementation date of 1 April 2019 will not be met. Gone are the supportive comments from the Police Scotland high command that everything about the proposal is rosy.
I cannot forget the response I received to a question that I put as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee; it came from Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins. Almost exactly a year ago today, on 7 March, I asked him about the problems we had seen with the merger of the eight forces into one and the ongoing challenges faced by Police Scotland. At that point last year, I was asking whether it was the correct time to force ahead with this merger. ACC Higgins, before the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee, replied:
“To be frank, two years is a luxury, based on what we had to do to bring Police Scotland together, so I am confident that the transition would occur”.
Two years as a luxury and confidence from an assistant chief constable of Police Scotland—all now wilted on the vine. Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone has made it very clear, in his remarks to the joint programme board and since, that Police Scotland was not ready, that it was not a luxury to have two years to implement the integration and, therefore, that it is correct that we have now paused.
Given all that, does my hon. Friend think it might be the time for Her Majesty’s Government to consider delaying the laying of orders facilitating the merger north of the border?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The chair of the British Transport Police Federation said, in the light of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, that the merger should be suspended permanently. The fact that he is talking about terrorism shows the significant difficulties that there might be over safety in the merger.
I agree with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Nigel Goodband and the BTP Federation have been strong advocates for the BTP maintaining its current form in Scotland, with its strong links with Police Scotland and across the rail network. They are strongly opposed, as many of us in this Chamber and indeed in Holyrood are, to the SNP’s plans for integration.
I have just quoted ACC Bernie Higgins from almost a year ago to the day saying that two years was a luxury. Even more recently, however, SNP politicians have been saying, “Everything is fine. Don’t worry about this. We’ll keep on moving.” On 24 January 2018 in the Scottish Parliament, my colleagues in the Scottish Conservatives, led by our justice spokesperson Liam Kerr, moved a motion calling for a pause, but every single SNP Member voted against that motion.
Not only did the SNP MSPs vote against, but they gave us some great quotes. Rona Mackay said:
“What more proof do the Conservatives need that the merger has been planned meticulously to ensure a smooth transition in 2019?”
“It would be preposterous to pause the process while negotiations are on-going, so I urge the Conservatives to stop trying to derail the merger, which will make Scotland a safer and more secure place in which to live and travel.”
Her colleague, Fulton MacGregor, said that
“plans are going as expected and there should be no issue with integration going ahead on 1 April next year.”
Deputy SNP leadership candidate James Dornan said:
“The terms and conditions have been worked on regularly and I am pretty sure that, when they get to the merger, everybody will be happy.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 January 2018; c. 54-64.]
It turns out no one is happy, because we will not achieve the merger on the timescale put forward by the SNP Government. They were wholly unprepared for the problems faced by a number of elements in the joint programme board, yet they were optimistic that everything would be fine, it could all be sorted out and, finally, they could get rid of the “British” from the name “British Transport police” operating in Scotland.
I want to look at a number of other aspects. We have had many useful briefings for this debate, and in particular I welcome the contribution of the British Transport Police Federation. A recently published study by Dr Kath Murray and Dr Colin Atkinson looked at the British Transport police merger in Scotland. It was published just before the announcement of a pause, but it included many useful pieces of information. For example, 83% of British Transport police officers in Scotland responded to the study to say that they were either very unsupportive or quite unsupportive of the merger plans—83% of our BTP officers in Scotland; that tells a story.
The study was also useful for some of the quotes of the respondents, which I want to read out. Speaking about the BTP Scotland merger, one officer said:
“It is being destroyed for political reasons. I am happy with my job and the way I am treated. It is an infuriating turn of events.
It is this political motivation which has angered officers most rather than any other issue.”
“I find it incredible that a merger of this size has been allowed to progress without a formal business case outlining the benefits and risks.”
One final quote is:
“The communication throughout has been woefully lacking. Two years of talks; I am unsure what, if anything, has actually taken place.
The vacuum of information is filled with rumour and hyperbole which tends to affect morale.”
Those are just three of the comments made by officers who contributed to that study, but they are reiterated time and again by the British Transport Police Federation, which is standing up for its officers and opposing the merger.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that survey, which will of course have to be addressed, but one of the key reasons behind those levels of opposition was, in essence, a sense of loyalty to the British Transport police as it stands. Does he not agree that the proposals in his party’s manifesto would receive a similar response if there was a survey on those as well?
I am unsure whether I have given way two, three or four times to the hon. Gentleman, yet he has still not mentioned his own party’s plans, which we are debating today—the SNP plans to merge the British Transport police in Scotland into Police Scotland. He only wants to ask about the Conservative plans; perhaps he should propose a debate on them to the Backbench Business Committee. I would gladly join him in Westminster Hall to debate those proposals, but today we are debating his party’s plans—dangerous plans for merging British Transport police into Police Scotland. We should focus our remarks on how damaging those plans are to police officers in Scotland, rail users in Scotland and indeed the operators.
The lack of a financial case has been highlighted a number of times. When I was on the Justice Committee, we concluded that the supporting financial memorandum did not provide enough detail on the expected cost of integration or on who should pay. We said at the time that that was unacceptable, and again the Scottish Government did not respond with the information required.
Another huge issue for the federation and officers was terms and conditions: the so-called triple lock that was promised by Michael Matheson as Justice Secretary and Humza Yousaf as Transport Secretary. There is a real vacuum on information available to our officers, who potentially were just 13 months from the merger—from leaving the force that they joined and were proud to serve in, to be merged into Police Scotland—yet still had no concrete detail on pay and conditions and on terms and conditions. Again, they have rightly felt let down by the Scottish Government in their negotiations.
On jobs, pay, conditions, and terms and conditions, it was actually guaranteed that there would be no jobs lost; terms and conditions were maintained, and there will be no pension issues arising from either retired, deferred or current British Transport police officers transferred across.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning pensions, because that is exactly what I was about to come on to. In the Public Gallery, we have members from the National Association for Retired British Transport Police Officers. What consultation did they have with the Scottish Government or the joint programme board? Zero. Retired officers, who will be impacted, were not consulted, included or even recognised by the Scottish Government in the merger proposals. Those officers have serious concerns, which include that they understood that the proposal was for Scottish members to be moved from the main funds to a newly segregated Scottish fund. That is likely to amount to around 250 serving officers, and probably about 200 retired officers, affected, without the courtesy of being informed of how many members in Scotland would come under the proposal. That will create almost immediately a closed fund: at one end, the number of serving officers will reduce each year due to retirements; at the other, retired officers will stop taking their pensions. Very quickly, there will be no new money coming in.
I would be grateful if SNP Members responded to the many concerns from the National Association for Retired British Transport Police Officers on that point, because they have never been answered by the Scottish Government through the joint programme board or at any opportunity in the Scottish Parliament. Such uncertainty is unacceptable for men and women who have served this country with great dignity and service, but are being left in the lurch by the SNP.
There are some positive developments. I said at the beginning that I welcome the fact that the SNP Government have paused these plans. We called for that in January; the joint programme board agreed it in February, and the SNP Government have finally listened. The Deputy Chief Constable designate of Police Scotland, Iain Livingstone, welcomed the delay and made no commitment at the most recent Scottish police authority board. He said that
“we will be reassessing in the coming months what the challenges and options are, and will then report back to Government”.
I took that as a very welcome signal from the top of Police Scotland that it is not simply pausing, but looking at all other options.
It is also extremely welcome that the British Transport police integration will be reviewed by Audit Scotland as part of its annual review. Proper scrutiny of the plans has been missing throughout this process, to judge how things were progressing as we went along. That intervention by Audit Scotland is welcome, but we must ensure that any progress, or lack of it, is highlighted at the correct times.
I am grateful that we have the UK Minister here; I think the hon. Member for East Lothian will agree that much of the concern from the SNP at the Backbench Business Committee was, “This has nothing to do with Westminster; you devolved these powers in 2016.” The SNP Member on the Backbench Business Committee told us that we should not debate it here. When I raised the issue in business questions or with the Prime Minister, SNP Members in the House of Commons shouted me down because they did not want it discussed in Westminster. But it is right that this issue is discussed in Westminster, because, as was said in an intervention, the UK Government still have to lay the orders that are scheduled for this autumn. I hope the Minister confirms that those orders will be paused, because of the pause in Scotland.
We do not devolve and forget. It is right that elected Members from Scotland in this place continue to look at the merger of British Transport police into Police Scotland. It is also right that peers in the other place tabled a motion of regret on this very point. Indeed, as I have said a number of times, this issue has been debated as recently as January in the Scottish Parliament. Both Parliaments are right to raise it and to discuss and debate it.
There is a role for this Parliament, and not only for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman stated, as there will be a consequence for the British Transport police, too, when the Scottish section is taken away. There are no railway stations on the Scottish border. Therefore, transport police from England will have to travel beyond Carlisle and beyond Berwick, through the Scottish border, when that is not their responsibility.
Absolutely. That was highlighted a number of times when the issue was debated in the Scottish Parliament, and it has been included in almost every briefing that we have received. If we end up with the SNP proposal and the status quo here in the rest of the UK, potentially two different forces will be investigating crimes on the same line. Not only is that confusing to rail users and consumers, but it will lead to duplication and misunderstanding, which will lead to a poorer service for Scottish rail users. We should not accept that.
Let us not just pause this process; let us restart it. Let us go back and look at all the options, to ensure that everyone is considered and every option listened to. When I raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, she made it clear that she did not believe that this Government should devolve and forget. She also made it clear that passenger safety must come first in any decision making. That has not happened so far, which is why the pause is welcome and why we must look again from the beginning, to ensure the best outcome for BTP officers both current and retired, for rail operators and for everyone who uses our rail services in Scotland and across the UK.
I will take my final words from the study by Dr Kath Murray and Dr Colin Atkinson, which sums up the issue better than anything else. An officer who looked at the plans said:
“It quickly became very clear that dissolving BTP Scotland as opposed to devolving BTP Scotland was going to take place…With no career future in sight, I decided to leave, but long service, conscience and pride in what we have achieved so far means I will stay until the last day. Leaving the best crime and justice legacy of BTP Scotland is important to me. My name will be on it at handover.”
I hope that that officer will continue to serve BTP in Scotland, because with this pause he can continue longer in the force he joined, the force he enjoyed working with and the force in which he took great pride in protecting the people of Scotland and the UK on our railways.
The debate can last until 11 o’clock. As there are five Members who wish to speak, I will impose a five-minute limit on speeches. That allows some leeway for interventions, but if there are too many, I am afraid that the last speakers will not be allowed the full five minutes. I call Ian Murray.
As always, it is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I do not want to echo all the remarks made by the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), whom I congratulate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), on initiating the debate.
We are having this debate at a crucial point in the life cycle of the British Transport police and this issue, and I am delighted that it has been brought forward.
Let me say at the outset that all five parties that sat around the Smith commission table agreed that the Scottish section of the British Transport police should be devolved. No one suggests that it should not be; the questions are how it will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, how it will subsequently be operated, and what that will achieve not only in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. Those are significant issues for everyone involved.
The issue really is safety. We know that the merger is driven by ideology—everything is driven by ideology for the Scottish National party—but safety is the issue.
It is important to say that the merger is not driven by ideology. What does the hon. Gentleman think of the recent review of terror attacks in London by his colleague, Lord Harris, who aired the possibility that the London underground functions of the British Transport police should be considered for merger with the Metropolitan Police Service? Other Governments are thinking about these things, too.
The hon. Gentleman has just highlighted that, in terms of terrorism, the Metropolitan police do not say that the British Transport police should be merged in the same way that is suggested in Scotland. I am glad we are having a discussion about terrorism. As I mentioned in an intervention, the BTP chair said that, in the light of terror attacks, any reorganisation of the British Transport police should be paused or halted permanently, on the basis that terrorism and the safety of the people of this country are the single biggest issue that the police service and security services deal with. Everyone should pause and reflect on why the Scottish Government have completely dismissed the British Transport police’s incredibly serious concerns about terrorism. As the biggest public safety issue, terrorism should be at the forefront of our minds. As I said, none of us wants the devolution of transport policing stopped; the question is how it is done in a way that ensures that the police service operates correctly.
It is not just politicians who say that—35% of BTP officers and 45% of BTP staff in Scotland say that they would probably leave the service if this integration went through. They have a great deal of pride in the service and safety that they provide to the public. Before my nationalist colleagues jump up and say that I am talking the police service down, let me say that the entirety of the police service—BTP and the police in my constituency—do a fantastic job in incredibly difficult circumstances. Great damage is being done to Police Scotland because of the botched merger of all the police forces to create that body, not because of individual officers, who do as much as they possibly can on the ground with the slim pickings of resources they are given.
To see how bad this integration would be, it is worth thinking about one of the basic grassroots issues—trains. They were discussed at great length on a cross-party basis when Lord Foulkes of Cumnock brought a debate on this subject to the House of Lords. There is no station on the border, on either the west coast or the east coast. In fact, no one could get a train into Scotland for four days last week. The last stations in England and the first out of Scotland on the UK main lines are Carlisle on the west coast and Berwick on the east coast.
Many constituents got in touch with me last week who had been stranded in Carlisle and relied on the help of the British Transport police to make arrangements to get home safely. Surely that would be disrupted if this merger happened and the single policing structure on the west coast main line were dislocated.
The service would be disrupted, and it would be an incredible waste of resources. If I may use these crude terms, we would need either English officers to stay on trains from Carlisle to Glasgow or from Berwick to Edinburgh, or—vice versa—Scottish officers to stay on trains going south. There will have to be some kind of agreement. None of that has been taken into account. That is why we welcome the pause in the integration and the fact that all these issues will have to be looked at.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman doesn’t mind, because of the time. Other people want to speak.
Many people have asked for a commissioning arrangement to be set up that would allow the Scottish Government to commission BTP services and the chief constable to be directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament—and perhaps even the UK Parliament—for the operation of the Scottish side of BTP. That arrangement would be based on a framework that everyone was happy with. The shadow Justice Secretary in Scotland, Daniel Johnson MSP, called for a pause, and I am delighted that one has been put in place. I hope that the Minister listens seriously to what the people who actually police our safety, our borders and our transport system say about how such a commissioning arrangement may work in the longer term.
The pension fund is a huge issue. No one has any confidence that the integration would be done properly, because the creation of Police Scotland was botched. I will not go into the VAT issue, but the SNP created a problem by ensuring that Police Scotland was no longer able to apply for section 33 VAT exemption. They said that it did not matter and blamed the UK Government for removing Police Scotland from the exemption. The UK Government then said that they would exempt Police Scotland again, and the SNP claimed victory and blamed the UK Government for its removal in the first place.
I use that example not to make a political point but to say that it is little wonder that police forces, police officers and people who work in the sector have no confidence that the integration can be done properly. The pension fund is a big issue. It is a small fund, and I understand from one of the pensioners in it that it is in surplus. Integrating it or taking away the safety net of the wider British Transport police pension fund would certainly be detrimental to current pensioners and future pensioners. I hope that the Minister will look very seriously at working with his Scottish counterparts to ensure that any integration is done properly and will look at the commissioning proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing this important debate.
Members will be aware that recommendation 67 of Lord Smith of Kelvin’s report on Scottish devolution, which was published in November 2014, provides:
“The functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter.”
Furthermore, sections 45 and 46 of the Scotland Act 2016 empower the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the policing of Scotland’s railways and provide for the Scottish Government to be consulted on appointments of senior officers to the British Transport police. That said, I contend, as I am sure would many others, that it is not in the travelling public’s interest to apply those powers and that this is not the appropriate time to bring together the British Transport police and Police Scotland. However, I note and welcome the Scottish Government’s very good decision to put on hold indefinitely their plans to absorb the Scottish division of the British Transport police into Police Scotland. Why would they seek at this moment in time to amalgamate the British Transport police—a specialist, standalone, effective force that apparently operates seamlessly with Police Scotland—into Police Scotland, a force that in recent years, together with the Scottish police authority, has been under increasing public criticism and scrutiny?
I must make it clear that the vast majority of Police Scotland’s frontline officers are to be commended for continuing to serve to the best of their abilities in difficult times, when consistency of high-level leadership may be perceived to be lacking and maintaining staff morale is immensely challenging.
In 2017, the British Transport police set a core budget of around £297 million for policing Great Britain’s railways and kept its price promise to keep budget increases below the retail prices index. It has maintained policing costs at the same level as last year. I doubt that the same may be said for Police Scotland since its inception. The chief constable of the British Transport police reports that more than 7,000 rail passengers and rail staff responded to a public consultation, and 85%—a significant number—of rail passengers were positive about the work BTP was doing at their local station. The satisfaction rating and feedback were apparently similar among the rail staff who responded.
As I understand it, the Scottish Government’s vision, although it is on hold, is for the British Transport police to become a specialist railway policing unit within Police Scotland. However, that unit would be funded differently from the remainder of Police Scotland. How can we be sure that the train operating companies, freight companies, Network Rail and London Underground, which currently provide funding, would continue to do so for a force that was incorporated within another based solely in Scotland? If we cannot be sure of that, might the Scottish taxpayers yet again be burdened with extra financial costs?
Concerns were expressed by the British Transport police authority, who identified a number of potential operational risks associated with the integration, including, in particular, and as mentioned by hon. Members, cross-border issues and staff morale, and the serious issue of pensions. The Rail Delivery Group identified possible additional expenses and a dilution of accountability associated with the Scottish Government’s proposal.
I, for one, am not convinced that those reasonably held concerns have been properly addressed to everyone’s satisfaction to ensure that we achieve British Transport police’s vision of working with industry partners and stakeholders to deliver a safe, secure, reliable and expanding transport system. Will it be maintained at its present, effective level should a merger take place at some time in the near future? I do not think the British Transport police’s effectiveness would be preserved if the merger took place.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on bringing the debate to the Chamber. This is clearly an issue that he feels passionately about—and quite right, too.
I start by paying tribute to the officers and staff of the British Transport police for their dedicated service and hard work in making safe the journeys of millions of passengers every day—not just on the rail network, but on services such as the London underground, docklands light railway, Emirates air line, Glasgow subway and others.
The officers of the British Transport police have been involved in some of the most difficult and dangerous incidents and policing operations in living memory, including the 1987 King’s Cross underground fire; dealing with numerous IRA bomb threats; rail crashes at Southall, Paddington, Hatfield, Potters Bar and Selby; and the response to the 7/7 terror attacks on underground trains near Edgware Road, King’s Cross and Aldgate. Whatever our views are on the future structure of transport policing, we are all united in offering our thanks to those officers and staff.
Although the British Transport police draws its authority from an Act of Parliament from 2003, it can trace its history back to 1830, allowing it to claim to be one of the world’s oldest police forces. Its history is also one of numerous reinventions and reorganisations to meet the challenges of the times. In the same way, each of the Governments of the UK are called on to make sure transport policing is prepared for current and future challenges. These are challenging times—or, as the British Transport police authority’s 2013 plan put it,
“a period that will require unprecedented change in railway policing”
to provide exceptional service quality at reduced cost.
Different proposals have come forward. As we have heard, in last year’s elections Conservative MPs across the UK stood on a manifesto that included the pledge:
“We will create a national infrastructure police force, bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police to improve the protection of critical infrastructure such as nuclear sites, railways and the strategic road network.”
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan commissioned a review by the Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey into London’s ability to deal with a terrorist attack. Noting that the Home Office is currently exploring options for merging certain national policing functions, his lordship reported that
“if such changes are being considered, it is important that the benefits of fully integrating the MPS and the underground policing functions of the BTP are considered at the same time.”
The outgoing Met Police Commissioner said there was a “good argument” for a merger, because the current set-up is “confusing” and such a merger could achieve “improved operational effectiveness” in responding to terror attacks.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that the examples he has cited from other parties in the UK are quite different from the SNP’s proposal for Scotland—to merge a specialist force into Police Scotland, which itself is a relatively new body still struggling with its own merger of the eight regional forces into one?
Of course there are differences between the various merger plans, but a variety of different institutions and Governments in the United Kingdom are having to make changes to how transport policing works. Indeed, the possibility flagged up in Lord Harris’s report is of integrating the specialist British Transport police on the underground into the more general Metropolitan Police Service.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government have decided that policing and public safety are best served by merging the recently devolved British Transport police into Police Scotland. That decision was debated in great detail in the Scottish Parliament, including by the hon. Member for Moray, but ultimately the Scottish Parliament backed that decision, passing the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act 2017, which is the first step in making that happen.
Without raking over old coals again, I do think that was the correct decision. Through the merger, the assets, resources and range of skills of the second-largest police force in the United Kingdom will be deployed routinely, rather than on request, on rail transport policing, just as for our roads, seaports, airports and border policing. That, together with clear assurances from both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland that specialist railway policing functions and the skill set of our transport police will be preserved after integration means that the merger’s objective is to not just maintain but enhance safety and security standards on railways in Scotland.
All those arguments are mirrored in Lord Harris’s report to Mayor Khan. Given the developments at the Home Office and the Conservative Government’s proposals, without the Scottish Government’s decision we might have ended up being the only part of the United Kingdom with a stand-alone transport police service, which would not have made much sense. It is not clear whether Conservative Members are arguing for that today.
Rather than reopen that argument, our task is to ensure that the considerable challenges of the merger are overcome, and that the inevitable and legitimate concerns and uncertainty for staff are addressed as thoroughly as possible. That is why a joint programme board was established. It was always the case that the timetable for the merger could change as progress was reviewed. While progress has been made in some areas, the board has recommended that the merger target date be extended beyond April 2019. That is regrettable, but it is right that the timescale is changed rather than the merger attempted at an impossible pace.
Meanwhile, Police Scotland has provided assurances that the right of any BTP member transferred to police the railway environment until they retire will be respected. There have been detailed discussions between the Scottish Government, the British Transport Police Federation and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and a guarantee has been pledged that secures jobs, pay and pensions through the course of integration.
Despite the picture that has been painted, there has been constructive engagement among railway operators, the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland and the Government. Unlike at present, a railway policing management forum is to be placed on a statutory footing to ensure rail operator engagement and accountability, and tasked with reaching agreement on the service, performance and costs of railway policing in Scotland. There has been positive engagement with the Transport Department at Westminster, where statutory instruments will be required.
I acknowledge that this has been and will be a challenging period for the British Transport police and current and retired staff. However, I believe this ultimately to be the best option for transport policing in Scotland—in fact, it is almost the only option. I trust that all parties involved will continue to work to make the transition as smooth as it can be.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate, which it was a pleasure to co-sponsor. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it. It is, as always, an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the Scottish Government, who have eventually arrived at the same conclusion as almost everyone else in Scotland: there is a need for a pause and to think through full-scale integration. Rather than dwell on what took so long, I hope that we can face the challenges and complexities of merging these diverse organisations and look at it again, for the sake of passenger safety, on the advice of experts including the federation, trade unions, Police Scotland employees, me and the Labour party. We need to kill the concept of a future full-scale merger.
The debate has been carelessly framed by some as a divide between those who want to weaken the current devolution settlement and those who want to strengthen it. The Smith commission was clear. It said, among other things on transport, that
“the functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter.”
I will not, because the hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions and had his chance to make a speech.
I hold no objections to the devolution of functions from the British Transport police to Police Scotland. In fact, the Scotland Act provides good scope for the transferral of such policing powers; yet, contrary to popular belief, a full merger under the devolution powers was not the only option.
The Smith commission preceded the publication of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s report on the matter. The Committee produced a number of options, which offered a range of answers. Options 1 and 2 looked first to provide an administrative and legislative settlement that would provide political accountability to Holyrood and Police Scotland. Those options, which were ignored by the Scottish Government, would as a preliminary settlement still have carried the recommendations brought forward by the Smith commission. We would still be able to devolve the service without putting passenger safety at risk and casting the uncertainty over pensions and jobs that we have heard about today.
Option 3 was full-blown integration: the most complex route to answer the devolution statement. By opting for a full merger, the Scottish Government put dogma before the people and services that they should serve. We have heard—this is an example of an alternative administrative legislative settlement—that Transport for London funds more than 2,500 police officers across the Metropolitan police, British Transport police, and the City of London police. Those police tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, and they make people feel safer when travelling in London. British Transport police have responsibility for the tube, the DLR and other areas, and through their neighbourhood policy they cater for the particular needs of communities near the stations they serve.
We have considered the financial demands that the Police Scotland merger has created, the stress faced by officers who serve on the street, and the managerial integration that is proving so very challenging. We have heard discussions about terrorism: the British Transport police have a terrorist specialism based in London, as does the unit that specialises in murder on the transport network. That is because, unfortunately, that is the geographical area where such things occur the most, so the specialist teams are where they need to be.
Hopefully, this debate will highlight the financial impact of the merger and the genuine questions that Police Scotland and BTP employees have about pay and conditions. It is better late than never, and I am relieved that those concerns have put any merger on hold. However, the past refusal of the Scottish Government to consider alternative forms to devolution fails to rectify the issues under discussion.
The Scottish Government have questions to answer, but I also wish to pose three questions to the Minister. When does the Secretary of State plan to lay orders to transfer power under the Scotland Act? Has the Minister received any acknowledgement of discussions between Police Scotland and train operators to establish a railway policy agreement? What discussions have the Government held with their counterparts north of the border about the review of British Transport police integration by Audit Scotland? There are proposals, including the commissioning model, that are supported by BTP, rail users and other interested parties. Such solutions will deliver an transparent and accountable BTP for Scotland, and a fair, consensual devolution settlement that I hope all parties will get behind.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your efficient chairmanship of this debate. I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for securing it.
Last week we debated Scottish city deals, which examined one side of the devolution equation. This debate examines the other side of that equation, and looks at how effective the devolution process has been over the past 20 years. We are seeing the emergence of the Scottish Government as a Leviathan—an unwelcome Leviathan in many ways. The devolution process was never designed to be like this; it was designed to create institutions to facilitate collaboration and strong partnerships at all levels of government, including local government and with the UK Government. Devolution should never be considered an annexation of power; it should be about building strong partnerships that facilitate efficient collaboration. We need to rediscover that as part of the devolution settlement.
I wish to reflect on the process through which the Smith commission discussed the devolution of the British Transport police to the Scottish Government, and the spirit in which that was done. No one disagrees with the idea of devolution, but the manner in which the Scottish Government have subsequently managed it has been less than satisfactory. The Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee presented three options for railway policing following the publication of the Smith commission’s report and the passage of the Scotland Act. Instead of consulting on which of those three would be the most effective, the Scottish Government instead railroaded through one simple option, with little room for stakeholders to affect the outcome. What sort of democratic devolved discussion and collaborative process is that?
Option 1 looked at administrative measures, including ways to increase alignment with Police Scotland initiatives and BTP’s accountability to Scottish institutions. It examined a new role for the Scottish Police Authority in scrutiny and performance, but that was disregarded. Option 2 considered legislative and administrative measures, including clarifying in statute arrangements through which the Scottish Government may give direction to the British Transport police authority. Under that option, the BTPA would retain responsibilities for pensions, employment contracts, and defraying the costs of policing to the rail industry. Planning and strategy setting for railway policing in Scotland would be reviewed to enable greater involvement by the Scottish Police Authority. Both options considered new branding for the BTP in Scotland, but again that was disregarded without any consultation.
The only option presented as a meaningful way forward was full integration, which was also deemed the most complex route. There was, however, no justification for it on that basis, so why were the other options disregarded out of hand? It is no surprise that the process has been halted, because its basis was clearly unsound from the beginning. That is why the chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland stated:
“The scope and scale of the challenges and complexity of the transfer should not be underestimated. It is not a merger of one complete organisation with another, but the partial extraction of a function from one organisation and its integration into another organisation.”
There is also a problem with staffing, morale, and the skills that are vital to sustaining the British Transport police across the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government seek to merge the BTP with Police Scotland, but they opposed the first two options on the grounds that they would not deliver a single command structure for policing in Scotland.
However, a single command structure is not necessarily desirable, because staff of the British Transport police want to maintain their integrity and their skills and specialisms. If they are removed from that structure and the only way to advance in the organisation is to move out of the rail division and into another part of Police Scotland, the dilution of the skills base will be self-evident. Why is that desirable? It is not, which is why it is necessary and key to maintain the discrete structure of the British Transport police in Scotland through other measures. Such dilution of the skills base is not desirable for staff or for efficient devolution.
For devolution to be a true success, we must examine both sides of the equation and ensure that local government, structures and institutions in Scotland are protected from the encroachment of Edinburgh. We must ensure effective collaboration among the Scottish Government, the UK Government and UK institutions to enable the most efficient management of those services in Scotland.
Because opportunities for advancement within the British Transport police transcend the border—people can move between different regional divisions and they can learn different skills and benefit from training across the UK. It is desirable to maintain such opportunities, and on that basis the British Transport police structure in Scotland should be revisited. We should reconsider those three options and discuss them openly and with good intentions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank you for your guidance. I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) on securing this debate. He raised important issues, and I will try to address some of them in my speech. Parts of his contribution felt a bit like Saturday when the football was happening in front of me but I was not necessarily enjoying what I was seeing.
For me, the low point is the suggestion that this change is driven by a desire to get rid of the word “British” from British Transport police, as that clearly is not a credible argument. The hon. Member for Moray also accused my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) of shouting and screaming, but all he was doing was trying to make valid interventions. The hon. Gentleman did make important points, however, and I will come on to them.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) confirmed that five parties in the Smith commission agreed on the devolution of the Scottish division of British Transport police, and we must understand that devolution is about handing powers to the Scottish Parliament, and about that Parliament making decisions using those powers. That is where the thrust of the debate should be. The hon. Gentleman also said that there was no train station right on the border, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) intervened and said that passengers were stranded at Carlisle last week, and if it had not been for the British Transport police helping them to go up the road, they might have struggled. However, I fail to see how that will change in a new set-up. The police will always do their best to help passengers, constituents and members of the public, and that will not change. To suggest that it will is to cloud the issue.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) mentioned the overall budget, but he failed to say that Scotland currently gets 5% of the BTP budget. Given that it has more than 11% of the rail network, that suggests a budget deficit. Perhaps that can be looked at in future, with the possible merger with Police Scotland.
I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and I were suggesting that customer service at Carlisle would be damaged by any of these changes to British Transport police, but if there is an incident on a train between Carlisle and Glasgow, who deals with it?
Obviously, I am not involved in the day-to-day workings, but it would depend where the incident was reported to. It is clear that working practices could be put in place, to be agreed between companies, about who to speak to about an incident and who would take charge.
That sort of example would be no more challenging with respect to cross-border rail police than would an incident on the roads, for example. Immigration officers also surely have to cross borders regularly, and powers are created to allow people to operate across borders and overcome such difficulties.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) has said he welcomes the pause in the process, but in fact he considers it as an opportunity to kill the policy off outright. He said that the British Transport police centre of excellence on terrorism was in London because London was more prone to terrorist attacks, but I do not see why that means that the Scottish division should not be incorporated into Police Scotland. There is still clear cross-border co-operation on such matters.
I cannot just now. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East spoke of an automatic dilution of skills. That is not a logical conclusion. If a railway division is retained in the new set-up, there should not be a dilution of skills. In fact, it is a way to enhance skills and opportunities within Police Scotland.
No; I will see if I have time near the end of my speech.
We are debating an important matter, which the Scottish Government are trying to deal with. It is clear that there are concerns within the Scottish division of the British Transport police about the proposals, and the claim that there are concerns among staff members cannot be refuted. We have to take the concerns seriously, given that we are talking about valued police officers who provide vital services, keeping us safe. Staff morale and welfare in relation to stress or concerns is of utmost priority. I think that that is what led to the current pause. However, even when those factors are taken into account, they do not justify the complete policy U-turn that most Members of other parties have called for.
To take the question away from what Opposition parties say, Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone said at the last Scottish police authority board meeting that we should look at options, not only at the merger that has been paused. If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with Opposition politicians, does he agree with Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone?
He obviously feeds into the joint programme board that will be developed; but it depends what he means by “options”. It could be timescales and how the integration goes ahead.
The Smith commission recommended the devolution of the transport police. The SNP Government submission at that point made it clear that their planned governance mechanism would be to incorporate the British Transport police division into Police Scotland. No opposition party responded to the consultation on British Transport police integration, so I have to ask what their concerns were previously. In reality, following the devolution of the British Transport police, the Scottish Parliament approved the integration proposals in June 2017. The majority of the Justice Committee endorsed the proposals; as I said, it was the Scottish Parliament that agreed to them, not simply the SNP Government. The SNP does not have a majority at Holyrood.
Page 44 of the Conservative manifesto for the UK general election in June stated:
“We will create a national infrastructure police force, bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police to improve the protection of critical infrastructure”.
It is clear that the UK Government propose to merge those specialist areas into one body. There may be a justification for that, but it still means that the Scottish division of the British Transport police would be left as an isolated railway division, separating the forces anyway. The UK Government still want their own single force.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned, the staff are highly motivated people who clearly enjoy their roles. They have clearly developed a loyalty to the British Transport police. That is a good thing, and it helps us to understanding some of their concerns, too. If they have worked for a long time in a division that they know to be high-performing, clearly there will be natural resistance to change. It is not directly comparable, but in my career I worked through the mergers of Strathclyde Sewerage, with the incorporation of the water division and the West of Scotland Water and Scottish Water mergers. At no point, as an employee, was I in favour of any of the mergers or changes, but once they went ahead there was never a desire to look back. I am confident that the same will happen once the merger we are debating goes ahead and there is a high-performing integrated police unit.
As to concerns about terms and conditions, I said earlier that there was a triple-lock guarantee to secure the jobs, pay and pensions of railway policing officers and staff in Scotland. There has been ongoing consultation with representatives of the British Transport Police Federation and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. Admittedly, some staff members clearly felt that there had not been enough communication, but that has now been addressed, and hopefully their concerns will be allayed, especially by the guarantees on terms and conditions. Again, the delay should help allay those concerns and allow the communication process to clarify things.
Some of the respondents to the staff survey were concerned about the loss of the specialism. However, there are plans to retain a specialist railway department and I hope that in due course that will prove to be the correct working arrangement and will maintain the specialism. Ultimately, the integration will provide a single command structure, with seamless access to wider support facilities and specialist resources. It will also ensure that railway policing in Scotland is accountable to the people of Scotland through the SPA and the Scottish Parliament. The integration can be used further to enhance the safety of passengers and railway staff. Some British Transport police staff have also recognised that there could be enhanced promotion and learning prospects within a wider Police Scotland. Concerns have been expressed about the integration of the IT systems, and clearly it must be done properly, but an integrated IT system must be an operational advantage in the bigger picture.
There is an argument that seamless cross-border working happens at present. Leaving aside the fact that the UK Government want to create their own national infrastructure force, it is clear that cross-border working happens with Police Scotland and other police forces now—particularly with counter-terrorism. If police from different police forces work on areas of that kind on a cross-border basis now, surely that can continue in the new set-up.
Police Scotland was mentioned in passing, and I should point out that it is being protected, budget-wise, in real terms. It has 1,000 more officers than in 2007. The fantastic work that its officers do needs greater political support, not to be drowned out by high-level politicking. Police Scotland performs well in its day-to-day fight against crime, which is at an all-time low in Scotland but is rising in England and Wales. The current D division employees of the British Transport police do a fantastic job, and I am confident that integration can be made to work well, and will prove the correct model in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in what has been a strong debate on the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act 2017, which permits the merger of the British Transport police Scottish division with Police Scotland, although it does not make it obligatory. Clearly there are many other models, as we heard from the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who opened the debate so well, and from my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who explained the importance of the Smith commission and the devolution settlement in moving forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) articulated incredibly well, that meant not annexation but collaboration. We should move forward in that way, and the debate is timely in the light of the announcement of 20 February on the pause in the process.
It is vital in policing that policy decisions be backed by strong evidence. Sadly, I have heard more ideology from the Scottish National party today. As to SNP Members saying that they are confident there will be no looking back, confidence is not enough. We need strong evidence, because this is a matter of public safety. The transport network faces challenging issues today. When we hear that 83% of police oppose the measures, we need to understand why there is a lack of confidence in what the SNP has put forward.
We cannot take away some of the other challenges that are being brought to bear, particularly the governance and capacity issues within Police Scotland—not that they cannot be resolved in the future, but they certainly exist at this time. We have heard about the challenges over pensions, terms and conditions, and cross-border policing, which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) has been pursuing through written questions and raised again today.
The hon. Gentleman has just had 10 minutes, and I need to make progress.
We also need to understand that more work should have been done on the three options that were presented, because clearly only one option was looked at. I believe the Scottish Government had a responsibility to dive deeper into each of those options from the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee to find the right model in moving forward, and that that would have led to the safest option. We need to ensure that those options are now revisited and reviewed, to make sure proper scoping work is carried out and to understand the impact of that. If option 1, talking about the greater alignment of institutions, is taken, it might be recognised that that is as far as it needs to go to ensure complete public safety across the railway. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian has highlighted, the commissioning model of Transport for London, working in an integrated, collaborative way, is another option, and there might be a hybrid model that comes forward once we have been able to review the situation as it is. We need to go back and review those options.
We also need to understand how complex the situation is, not least because we are negotiating across a range of bodies. We have to go back to the fragmented railway system as it is, with the different franchise operators servicing the Scottish railways. Labour wants to see a much more integrated, nationalised railway, which would certainly make things far simpler, but it is important that we look at these issues in the time we are in.
We must think about the specific issues that the transport police are involved in. Of course, that is not isolated from community policing. In my York Central constituency, the transport police have worked closely with the police in dealing with antisocial behaviour and tackling alcohol consumption on trains, making my city safer. That collaboration is vital, but the key is collaboration and working together. It is not changing systems to suit a particular narrative, which, I am afraid, is what this debate has steered into. We also need to be mindful of the integration of the work of the British Transport police with, for instance, that of the guards. We have seen assaults rising quite sharply on our rail network, which is why Labour is committed to ensuring that we have guards on our trains to make the public safe. It is an integrated role.
There are specific roles: dealing with missing and vulnerable children is a big issue for the transport police, as is dealing with public safety at railway stations. Mental health challenges are a big issue that the police have to address at stations, including the specifics of trying to engage with the public to reduce the risk of suicide and harm. One hon. Member raised in the debate the issue of being able to access the rail line, because of vulnerable people finding their way on to railway lines, or trespass. There are specific tasks with specific training that are done by the British Transport police. If we fragment the service, where is that specialist training going to come from without the years and years of expertise built up in providing that access?
Will the hon. Lady explain why, if a specialist police division is retained within Police Scotland, suitable training on suicide prevention and the other measures she mentions cannot be provided? That issue probably cuts across Police Scotland and other measures that other officers have to take.
I struggle again with the SNP’s intervention, because there are specific issues about not just people at risk at stations, but people finding their way on to the rail network itself and how that is addressed. We have heard about the training that is needed on access to the track and keeping the public safe.
Is it not correct to say that, for example, when we share the east coast main line, which runs north and south, the integration has to be north and south? Events that happen in York or Newcastle have knock-on effects both in Scotland and down in London on that one railway line.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That point came out strongly in one of the submissions to the consultation, talking about things such as the management of football fans and ensuring that that is done through co-ordination between Scotland and England. It is important that we see that integration continue.
Coming back to issues of expertise, the British Transport Police Federation chairman, Nigel Goodband, said:
“Given the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the ongoing and significant threat from terrorism, I am writing to you as a matter of urgency to implore you to suspend the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill.”
Here we have somebody in a lead position of expertise imploring the Scottish Government to put this proposal, as it is presented today, on ice, who is backed by the trade unions, the police and Labour.
We need to ensure greater alignment and good collaboration—I think everybody in this debate would agree with that—but we must remember that policing is needed across borders too. Rail does not respect borders, and neither does crime. If this is about keeping the public safe, we need to ensure that we have good communications between station staff and police throughout the network and on board the trains. We cannot afford to lose or regress on the skills that have been developed over time. We are talking about 284 staff and officers who have gained those skills over numerous years and built up a specialism.
We must respect specialism in the police, but many issues are now pulling that expertise away from the service. Many people say they will leave—I believe it is 16% of experienced officers and staff—with 14% going elsewhere in the British Transport police and 22% uncertain over the future. They are uncertain because there is no clarity on pensions and terms and conditions. We are talking about not only existing staff, but the future workforce, who have not been referred to in the debate.
I welcome Audit Scotland’s reviewing the debacle that this has turned out to be, but I also press it on the Minister today that we should see a pause in the laying of orders before the House and ensure that the work goes back to the scoping phase, to reflect properly on the responses to the consultation, which reject the SNP’s proposals, and instead to put forward a sensible model of greater alignment and collaboration as we move forward, thereby ensuring that public safety is put first.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (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. The hon. Member for East Lothian (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 the Member for Moray and the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (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.
The Minister talks about being open and frank with his colleagues in the Scottish Government. Will he therefore use this time, while the integration programme has been paused because of the reasons outlined, to look at the commissioning model that seems to have support across the industry and the House, and to impress on those colleagues, through frank and open discussions, that that model might be the best way forward?
Railway policing has now been devolved to Scotland, and it is therefore the domain and the prerogative of the Scottish Government to determine how best those responsibilities can be discharged. The commissioning route that the hon. Gentleman prefers is not the policy choice of the Scottish Government. It is now for them to deliver on devolution and to make it work as best they can, with the UK Government playing a supporting role.
Does the Minister agree that devolution is not necessarily about the Scottish Government having full oversight of this, and that there is nothing to stop those of us with electoral mandates to represent the people of Scotland from offering a view? The UK Government should also not shrink from offering their preferred view of what should happen. This is not the nature or the spirit of the collaboration that should underpin devolution.
We will continue to work collaboratively with our colleagues in Scotland to ensure the smooth transfer of powers. We all have the interests and the safety of the passengers and the staff working on our railways at heart. We want to put in place sustainable and endurable arrangements within the framework of law set by the devolution settlement.
I assure hon. Members that, working through the joint programme board, we will be ready to challenge the approach where it is necessary to do so in the interests of passengers, officers and staff and the security of the country. We will continue to ensure that the UK’s interests are fully protected, including by ensuring that the critical, specialist work of the BTP in England and Wales continues to protect rail users and staff.
First, I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the way you have chaired this robust but respectful debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople for their contributions, particularly the Minister.
I have to pick up on a couple of points from the speeches made by Scottish National party Members, which I have to say were disappointing. They mentioned that terms and conditions had been progressed. This is an issue that we have considerable concern over, but SNP Members seem quite happy. However, their own Justice Minister in Scotland, Michael Matheson, said that the pause would allow extra time to allow more engagement with the BTP Federation on pay and conditions. Even their own Justice Minister in Scotland does not think they have gone far enough on that.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned IT and how that would be a positive of the merger. However, the Rail Delivery Group, in its briefing for the debate, said that the failure to progress the implantation of ICT systems was one of the biggest hazards of the merger. It went on to say that discussions suggest that the earliest an equivalence system in place would be in April 2021—two years beyond the proposed April 2019 date, which has fortunately been paused.
We are all fortunate in Scotland to have the strong influence of BTP officers in our constituencies. In my constituency of Moray, they were very active during the recent construction of the new Forres railway station. I welcome the support that we have had from pretty much across the Chamber for the pause to now be used as an opportunity to consider options going forward. I am disappointed that SNP Members trotted out the party mantra, unwilling to look at alternative options. However, there are options, and we are in a pause, so we should look at them. They would allow us to respect the devolution settlement and the views of experts.
I will use my final words to praise the commitment, dedication and expertise of British Transport police officers, and indeed all Police Scotland officers. Their unstinting service keeps us safe across Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposals for the merger of British Transport Police Scottish division with Police Scotland.