'Interim' plan after Scottish railway police merger stalls
Ministers are pursuing a medium-term alternative to the stalled merger of British Transport Police into Police Scotland, it has been confirmed.
Plans to integrate transport policing into Scotland's single national force were put on hold in August amid concerns from officers and unions.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the merger was still a "long-term goal".
But the government has now suggested an "interim model" involving more local oversight of the existing system.
Opposition parties said Mr Yousaf had committed a "humiliating u-turn" and should take the full merger "completely off the table".
MSPs passed legislation to absorb the functions of BTP north of the border into Police Scotland in 2017, although there was opposition from the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.
The merger had been due to go ahead in April 2019, but was put on hold after concerns were raised about a range of practical issues.
Mr Yousaf has now written to Holyrood's justice committee saying that the legislation could instead be used to "create an arrangement that facilitates a stronger oversight role for the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) in relation to railway policing in Scotland".
He said the SPA and BTP were "committed to exploring that option further and discussing how it might work in practice".
BTP had argued from the outset of the merger debate that they could continue to provide railway policing services with local oversight.
Labour said it was "welcome that Mr Yousaf has finally recognised the plan to merge is a non-starter and is now pursuing alternatives".
But justice spokesman Daniel Johnson said it was a "humiliating u-turn" by the justice secretary, and urged him to "take the possibility of a merger completely off the table".
The Lib Dems echoed this, with MSP Liam McArthur saying the government 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".
In his letter, Mr Yousaf insisted that "integration remains this government's long-term goal".
However, he said increasing local oversight instead would "provide a viable medium-term option", while providing BTP staff and officers with "clarity and stability going forward".
Noting that it is "important to give both the SPA and BTP sufficient time" to discuss the plan, Mr Yousaf also added that this arrangement would need to be given time to "settle" in order to provide stability for staff.
The letter sparked confusion among the justice committee when it was discussed later in the morning, with convener Margaret Mitchell saying she would write to the government to seek "clarification on exactly where we are now".