The Conservative- Lib Dem coalition government plans for a dedicated border police force threatens a row with Holyrood
They are images familiar to those who find themselves flicking past channels with names like Dave and Bravo. Burly uniformed men and women, usually with Australian or American accents, searching people at airports, or powering after small ships in speedboats, ready to board and investigate with what are almost always called ‘bogeys’ or ‘hostiles’.
In Britain, and especially Scotland, we’ve never had the same obsession with ‘border security’ as it is known in other Anglophone nations. We’ve tended to rely on the sea that surrounds our main island to act as a natural form of defence. But this is about to change.
The creation of a dedicated Border Police Force by the Westminster Government will give the UK such a specialist body for the first time. The exact details are unclear, but during the election campaign the Conservatives identified merging existing operations like the UK Border Agency – which deals with visas and ‘point of entry’ operations – with Customs and Excise and the Serious and Organised Crime to form the new unit.
On a recent visit to Heathrow Airport to inspect Britain’s ‘frontline’ against various border penetrations, Home Secretary Theresa May said: “Keeping Britain’s border secure is a priority for this Government – which is why it is crucial that we have vigilant border staff utilising the latest technology in our fight against the people traffickers, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants determined to come here and cause harm.
“The new Government is committed to introducing a limit on the number of non- EEA migrants who come here to work, contributing to a reduction in net migration back to the levels of the early 1990s – tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
If this is to happen successfully, our border must be stronger than ever before.” Here May touches on a crucial tension: under the terms of the Scotland Act – as it stands – matters such as immigration are reserved. But drug smuggling is not. When a Border Police Force (BPF) is formed, what status will it have in Scotland? If it becomes clear that drug smugglers are using remote coves and islands off the west coast of Scotland, who has jurisdiction: Strathclyde Police or the BPF? And in a time of drastically restricted funding arrangements, won’t a BPF simply be another force doing what is already done in Scotland? A reinvention of the wheel?
While we don’t know exactly what the BPF will look like, we do know that it is coming.
A Home Office spokesperson says: “A dedicated Border Police Force will enhance our national security and strengthen immigration controls, bringing an end to inconsistent and disjointed policing at our ports and airports. We believe this will also allow us to crack down on people trafficking, and the smuggling of drugs and weapons, as well as stepping up the war against serious crime and other cross-boundary policing challenges.
“The UK Border Agency will work with the police service and others about the practicalities of implementing these changes. The Queen’s Speech outlined the Government’s intentions and further details of the Border Police Force are being taken forward within the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Nationalistled Scottish Government is hardly thrilled by what could end up being a de facto usurpation of powers granted to Holyrood under the terms of the Scotland Act.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “We believe that the Scottish Police should retain primacy for all policing matters in Scotland. We therefore have strong reservations about the creation of a border force in Scotland.
“While we understand that the Home Office is still working up its proposals, any proposal to extend the proposed border force to Scotland would require close consultation with the Scottish Government and ACPOS.” SNP MSP and member of the Justice Committee Nigel Don went even further, saying that Scotland already has problems with one UK-wide police force not controlled in Scotland and does not need another: “A UK-wide border police is not needed in Scotland and will bring only confusion rather than clarity over policing operations.
Border functions can and should be carried out by Scotland’s police forces who are our front line.
“We have seen the problems caused by a police force operating in Scotland that is not controlled from Scotland with the excessive stop and searches conducted by the British Transport Police. We would face the same problems with a UK border force.
“What is needed is for the UK Government to recognise the efforts already put in by Scotland’s police to enforce border controls, particularly around Stranraer and to resource them properly. The focus in Stranraer may have moved from security in relation to The Troubles in Northern Ireland to possible people and drug smuggling but it remains essential work that the UK must ensure Scotland’s forces are funded to do.” Chief Superintendent Bruce Duncan, head of operations for Northern Constabulary, knows better than most how Scotland’s existing forces undertake work that can only be described as ‘border security’. And while much of drug and human trafficking in Britain takes place via the huge ports, both land and air, off the south-east, smugglers are nothing if not innovative. In Ireland and Spain, cocaine and cannabis smugglers routinely drop off shipments in hugely remote areas to be picked up and transported to population centres. There is no reason why the western and northern coasts of Scotland would not be used for the same purpose.
“We are responsible for policing a vast area equivalent in size to Belgium, which is approximately 19,400 square miles. There is approximately about 10,000 kilometers of coastline around the area that we police. The population is about 286,000 and we have 800 police officers policing the area.
“The geography presents problems for us in relation to moving resources around. We don’t have any boats we use ourselves but certainly we’ve got a high number of 4×4 vehicles. These are stationed at locations where they may be required. What I would say is that we have excellent working relations with the RAF and the Coastguard so in times of emergency, they frequently help us out to move resources to locations as we need them,” says Duncan.
Crucially, and this would have a major impact on any London-controlled border force, Duncan says that it is the close personal relationships found in tight-knit communities in such rural areas that make his force one of the most effective in Britain.
He says: “If any report came in of suspicious activity we would arrange for our officers to duly investigate that. Obviously as well, we work with the other agencies so we would pass any information on to them and through a process of partnership working develop a response that was fitting for the information that we had received. If somebody phones in to say there was suspicious activity, we would have no hesitation in responding to that.
“We work very closely with the other agencies in educating the public to report any suspicious activity and we do get a great deal of public support, being a rural police force. The style of policing we have is very community based and that way we do get a lot of information and intelligence coming in which helps us to keep crime down and not only that, we’ve got among the highest detection rates in the country because of the great relationship we have with the public.
“Certainly [the importance of personal relationships between police and citizens] is my professional and personal view. Having been a police officer for 30 years, you work in communities and you develop a relationship with them and then the trust is there for them to pick the phone up and say, ‘There is something strange happening here, maybe you should pick the phone up and have a look’.” The new Westminster Government says it wants to develop a relationship of ‘respect’ with the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. Equally, the SNP Government says it wants a relationship based on mutual respect. Whether that relationship will survive the creation and implementation of the Border Police Force remains to be seen.