Police chiefs have warned that integrating railway policing into Police Scotland would be “massively complicated”.
A Railway Policing Bill is to be introduced at Holyrood to push forward devolution of law enforcement powers.
This would include the functions of the British Transport Police being taken over by Police Scotland.
Police bosses told Holyrood’s justice committee that a merger would be “complicated but not insurmountable”.
Representatives from BTP, Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority, and the Scottish Institute for Policing Research took part in a round-table session with MSPs at the Scottish Parliament.
Absorbing transport policing into Scotland’s single force has been a long-running goal for Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.
‘Efficient and effective’
The BTP itself wanted to continue providing the service, but with oversight from Holyrood instead of Westminster after devolution, and three railway unions came out against the plan.
But the Scottish government said integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland”.
A Railway Policing Bill was announced in the latest Scottish programme for government, which would complete devolution of policing and put in place funding arrangements for integration.
During the meeting, BTP representatives voiced fears that the special skills of transport officers could be “diluted” and over whether currently “seamless” cross-border policing standards could be maintained.
Questioning why integration was necessary, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock said: “If it’s not broken, what are we trying to fix?
“Why does BTP exist now if it’s so easy to absorb it into a geographic force? There’s a reason why the specialism is so valued by the industry and passengers – it hasn’t just emerged out of a want from some enthusiasts. There’s a real need for policing the railway in a different way.”
Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, of Police Scotland, admitted the merger would be “massively complicated”, but insisted it could be successful.
He said: “This isn’t a land-grab by Police Scotland. We will respect the decision of parliament.
“It would be complicated, but not insurmountable. There would be massive transition issues, but operationally, we could police the rail network in Scotland.”
He added that staffing levels in train stations would be maintained, and would also be supplemented by Police Scotland officers which are not currently “routinely” dispatched to support BTP.
Nick Fyfe, from the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, agreed that integration would be a “highly complex task”, pointing to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways” which would need to be respected during any merger.
The meeting heard that staffing levels in railway policing would be “ring-fenced” after a merger, with officer numbers guaranteed in all but “times of crisis”.
However, Nigel Goodband, from the BTP Federation, said he could “guarantee” that the expertise of BTP would be “diluted”, with some officers wanting to remain with the force rather than move to Police Scotland and others choosing to retire. “Ultimately you will lose expertise,” he said.
Tory MSP Oliver Mundell warned that if the government “rush” the merger decision it risked “losing expertise, and a continued diminishing of trust in the single police force”.
ACC Higgins replied that given Police Scotland is currently in a period of transition, this could in fact be a good time to absorb BTP.
Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said it was “clear that there is not a consensus on what is a very complex issue”.
The British Transport Police Federation had already highlighted concerns with the plan in submissions to the committee, saying that “the current climate of policing within Scotland does not lend itself to integrating the BTP and what is a successful model of policing”.
They said Police Scotland “is still very much in its infancy”, adding that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”
The group further noted concerns about interruptions in the level of service for the estimated 21m passengers who make cross-border journeys each year, and about the potential for officers being pulled away from their core duties to “bolster the resilience of Police Scotland” in other areas.
However, the group concluded that they would “work with the Scottish government to seek the best possible outcome” for officers and the travelling public, a sentiment echoed by the BTP itself in its submission.
The Scottish government has insisted that the specialist skills and knowledge of officers would be maintained, but said this could be achieved “from within our national police service”.
The Scottish Institute for Policing Research meanwhile said there would be “complexities” in any merger, highlighting the importance of “careful scrutiny” of financial, strategic and operational aspects.