Nicola Sturgeon resists calls to abandon BTP merger plans permanently

Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish Government remains committed to the devolution of railway policing as she faced calls to abandon plans to merge Police Scotland and the British Transport Police (BTP) for good.

The First Minister said it would be “premature” to rule out any option at this point as she acknowledged work on the way forward was “challenging” and “complex”.

A path was cleared for the merger of the two forces when the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act was passed in June 2017, despite criticism from opposition parties, unions and others.

Integration was originally due to take place in April this year but the timetable was delayed and Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said last September it might never be enacted.

Daniel Johnson (right)
Daniel Johnson (right)

Labour justice spokesman Daniel Johnson questioned the First Minister at Holyrood on whether the merger plan has been “permanently abandoned”.

Ms Sturgeon told him: “We remain committed to the devolution of railway policing as agreed by all parties in this Parliament during the Smith Commission.

“We’ve worked with stakeholders on options to improve the accountability of railway policing in Scotland.

“There is consensus that legislation currently in force could be used to create an arrangment that facilitates a stronger role for the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

“The SPA and the British Transport Police Authority (BTPA) are considering how this should be done and they aim to present proposals to their respective boards in the coming months.

“It would be premature to rule out any option at this time but any proposal must enhance the accountability of railway policing in Scotland while ensuring the safety and the security of the travelling public.”

Mr Johnson said it was clear “after almost two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds being spent” that integrating BTP into Police Scotland is “simply not possible”.

“The uncertainty that staff and officers have faced will not end until full integration is permanently ruled out,” he said.

He also demanded to know when the “fatally flawed” Act would be repealed.

Ms Sturgeon told him: “This is a challenging piece of work, it’s a complex piece of work and considerable work has been done to assess all of the risks and challenges.”

The option currently developed will see a new committee established to oversee railway policing in Scotland, comprising members of the SPA and the BTPA.

The First Minister said: “I think that’s the right way to proceed, to make sure that we have arrangements in place that do enhance the accountability of railway policing in Scotland but also ensuring the safety and security of the travelling public and of course those who work in our transport police as well.”

Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said the SNP administration had been forced to concede “that erecting a border on Britain’s railways is a dreadful idea” as he asked how much taxpayers’ money has been “wasted” pursuing full integration of the forces so far.

The First Minister accused the Conservatives of being inconsistent in their position, saying the party had advocated the merger in its 2016 Scottish election manifesto.

“The idea that the Tories have always supported retaining the British Transport Police as a stand-alone entity is not supported by the evidence or the facts,” she told MSPs.