Scotland’s Justice Secretary is looking at alternatives to controversial plans to merge Police Scotland and the British Transport Police (BTP) north of the border.
Humza Yousaf told a Holyrood committee that government officials had been working with both organisations on possible options ranging from voluntary information sharing to new governance set-ups.
He said a meeting including both organisations, their oversight bodies, the department for Transport and Audit Scotland, last month resulted in the “general consensus” current legislation could be used to strengthen the role of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) in overseeing railway policing in Scotland.
The Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill paving the way for a merger was passed in June 2017, despite criticism from opposition parties, the unions and others.
Integration was originally due to take place in April 2019, but the timetable was delayed and in September Mr Yousaf said the legislation might never be enacted.
In a letter to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, he said: “My officials have been working with stakeholders to explore further the options for enhanced accountability to the Scottish Parliament.
“The options discussed ranged from voluntary information-sharing agreements to exploring new governance and accountability mechanisms.
“Last month’s event demonstrated a general consensus among stakeholders that legislation currently in force could be used to create an arrangement that facilitates a stronger oversight role for SPA in relation to railway policing in Scotland.
“Both the SPA and British Transport Police Authority have committed to exploring that option further and discussing how it might work in practice.”
He said he remains committed to keeping the commencement date of the Railway Policing (Scotland) Act “under review” and integration of the services is the government’s long-term goal.
He added: “However, I recognise that BTP staff and officers in Scotland deserve clarity and stability going forward and I am confident that exploring the above mentioned arrangement in further detail will provide a viable medium term option to enabling governance and accountability of the delivery of railway policing in Scotland.”
Opposition parties called for the government to scrap the merger plans in full.
Labour’s justice spokesman Daniel Johnson said Mr Yousaf had performed a “humiliating u-turn”.
He said: “The public, experts and officers themselves have always been opposed to this ideological move from the SNP government.
“It is welcome Mr Yousaf has finally recognised the plan to merge is a non-starter and is now pursuing alternatives.
“The SNP government must now take the possibility of a merger of BTP and Police Scotland completely off the table.”
His Liberal Democrat counterpart Liam McArthur accused the government of having “dismissed out of hand” proposals “less risky” than the merger.
He said: “That decision cost millions of pounds and alienated the very staff who would be needed to make the policy a success.
“For BTP officers and staff the future remains uncertain. The Justice Secretary should ditch the original plan, given two years of work has shown it to be unworkable, and focus instead on the other viable options for the future of this service.”
Discussing Mr Yousaf’s letter at the Justice Committee on Tuesday, members agreed to write to the organisations involved, including the government, and seek clarity on costs and timescales for the options.
Conservative Liam Kerr told the committee the letter indicated interim measures, if successful, might mean full integration is not necessary but “regardless of what happens in the medium term, in the long term we are still going to go for merger”.
He added: “I genuinely don’t understand that”.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the letter “simply updates members on progress”.
She added the Justice Secretary had indicated the need to identify “interim arrangements that could give effect more quickly to the devolution of railway policing, as recommended by the cross-party Smith Commission” in August, and committed to to re-considering all options for enhancing accountability of railway policing in Scotland in September.