Many years ago a good friend of mine worked for British Telecom (BT) shortly after they were privatised. The senior management had the bright idea that what was then a monopoly provider should be brought closer to the communities it served. Their solution was a devolved series of districts, each with its own management structure and a degree of autonomy over things like human resources, training, and IT.
The result was a disaster and the structure was abandoned within a few years. There were many reasons for the failure but fundamental was a misunderstanding of the nature of their business. They were not about working with and for local communities. They were running a network – a single, albeit complex, set of routes (cables and wireless) and connections that covered the whole country and allowed people to communicate between any two points on the network.
It should. It’s essentially the same structure as the railways. It’s why the body that looks after the infrastructure is called Network Rail and is responsible for maintaining and improving the network across Britain from Caithness to Cornwall, Holyhead to Harwich. It makes sense because the same trains, technically speaking, run to the same standards anywhere on the network (train buffs – indulge me with my generalities please). The actual services, of course, are provided by a range of private companies, either hugely successful in coping with the growth in passenger numbers or dismally unsuccessful in levels of service and fare levels, according to your point of view.
Nevertheless, it’s one system, and knitted together not only by Network Rail, but also by the British Transport Police (BTP), which provides a specialist policing service that covers the whole system.
Or at least, unless the SNP gets its grubby mitts on the 150-odd officers under a chief superintendent who police the Scottish part of the network.
The proposal to hive-off policing of part of the service covering the whole rail network was foreshadowed in the post-independence referendum Smith Commission report as one of a number of odds and ends not fundamental to the working of devolution. The report merely said:
67. The functions of the British Transport Police in Scotland will be a devolved matter (p.21)
There was no justification, no explanation of the proposal.
So the question is, what is the justification?
As it happens, the Scottish government recently published a research report about the consultation on their proposal to absorb the Scottish part of BTP into Police Scotland. As well as summarising the results of the consultation, the report gives an overview of why the government want to do this:
1.5 The Scottish Government believes that a specialist railway policing function within Police Scotland would ensure that railway policing in Scotland is accountable, through the Chief Constable and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), to the people of Scotland; building on the skills, knowledge and experience of the BTP; and enhancing railway policing in Scotland through direct access to the local, specialist and national resources of Police Scotland (p.5).
Thirty organisations or groups and over 100 individuals responded to the consultation.
The consultation proceeded along the usual government lines, which can be summarised not as
We want to do x, do you agree?
We’re going to do x, what do you think of the following aspects?
However, the research report finds it necessary to begin with these statements:
1.6 The current levels of accountability of BTP in Scotland were highly valued by the rail industry, rail operators and passengers alike … (p.5)
1.7 There was much opposition … from individuals and organisations, to the proposal to change the current status and integrate BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland. Many considered that a strong case for integration had not been made. This opposition underpinned their responses to questions throughout the consultation … persistently noting their opposition to the proposal to integrate (p.5)
1.8 Key concerns raised were that the breaking up of a BTP-wide service would impact negatively on cross-border services; would reduce competence in tackling major UK issues such as terrorism; would reduce safety of rail passengers and staff with possible reduction in officer posts; would increase costs for train operators; and would hamper career development and progression between transport police in Scotland and the north of England in particular (p.6).
Despite this apparent overwhelming opposition it appears the government is determined to go ahead with its proposals.
It really is difficult to fathom the advantages of proceeding with the dismantling of BTP in Scotland.
First, it’s not as if either Police Scotland or the SPA are without their current challenges, not least the ‘weak financial leadership of both bodies’ (Audit Scotland), without taking on another, very different, responsibility.
Second, while the government’s view is that the change will increase accountability through the chief constable and the SPA, most consultees valued current levels of accountability highly. In checking the nature of existing public accountability of Scottish policing through the SPA, I noted that although parts of the Authority’s meetings are open to the public, agendas and papers are only published on the day of the meeting (my emphasis). This is a level of opaqueness that would be intolerable for either parliament or local authorities and would significantly blunt any oversight of the transferred BTP functions to Police Scotland.
Third, the government seem to have a naïve confidence that their proposals will build on the ‘skills, knowledge and experience of the BTP.’ How would this be possible if the BTP has been ejected from Scotland? It is as if I had said I was going to end my boiler maintenance contract with British Gas (BG) in favour of a local engineer and then wanted to go back to BG and say ’Er, you seem to have some expertise my local guy lacks. Could I still draw on your skills and experience?’ Unless, of course, I got my local engineer to immediately sub-contract some of his work back to BG. In which case, what was the point of the change anyhow?
Fourth, and this really is fundamental, what are the problems to which the proposal is a solution? I cannot see in what I have read that there are specific problems the Scottish government proposal will solve. If not, why make the change?
Is the problem as simple as the fact that this is a British-wide institution that moreover has the word ‘British’ in its title, the two facts combining to be a red rag to the nationalist bull?
It’s a shame that the Smith Commission and the UK parliament sold the pass on this issue. They both failed, in parliament’s case yet again, to understand that all these things are not some technical tidying-up to a final devolution settlement, but are the very essence of the SNP’s way of working – centralising and ‘Scottifying’ institutions under their control in order to manufacture difference and justify separation.
The SNP won’t be happy until all those cross-border rail routes become international journeys to a different country. Until that happens, and like a majority of the people of Scotland I hope it never will, the British rail network is one and should be policed as one.