Why are we arming the British Transport Police?

No good reasons or good evidence have been disclosed.

When the government announced that the British Transport Police were going to gain "armed capability" it all seemed rather depressing.

In part, this adverse reaction was because the steady creep of arming civilian police officers was now almost complete, as the BTP is effectively the last police force without its own armed officers; in part, it was because of the memories of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube Station; and in part, it was because of the truth universally acknowledged that any uniformed person at a train station will invariably lack any common sense.

Accordingly, it was not news that was immediately encouraging, and it certainly was not something that made one feel safer.

However, one must put aside prejudices and see if such a significant development was needed.

One would think that there would be good reason for arming the BTP; that it must have been a thought through process.

Let's start with the ministerial statement, which reads:

The Government is committed to the security of the country and as such keeps our capabilities under constant review. As part of this, I am today announcing, with the agreement of my Right Honourable Friend the Home Secretary, that the security of the railways and London Underground will be further enhanced by the development of a British Transport Police (BTP) armed capability that will be deployed as appropriate in response to the terrorism threat level at any given time.

The Government has been considering the resilience of the overall police armed capability and has concluded that it would be beneficial to enhance this by providing the BTP with an armed capability of its own. The timing of this is not as a result of any specific threat: it is a sensible and pragmatic approach to ensuring that our police forces have the right resources to be able to respond as and when needed to protect the public.

By sanctioning the development of this armed capability, we will reduce the burden on other police forces which currently provide armed support to the BTP. This is not a major new capability in terms of overall armed policing, but by training BTP officers to carry out armed patrolling of the rail network it equips BTP with a capability already available to other police forces. Armed patrols will be deployed according to operational need - it will not be a daily event to see armed officers at stations.

We will continue to work with the BTP and others to assess the use of this capability and its effectiveness and impact. I would like to reassure Parliament that this is a measured and proportionate approach to supporting the BTP in maintaining public safety on the railway.

So it would appear that it is indeed for good reason: "considering the resilience of the overall police armed capability....beneficial to enhance this by providing the BTP with an armed capability of its own... a sensible and pragmatic approach... reduce the burden on other police forces... I would like to reassure Parliament that this is a measured and proportionate approach to supporting the BTP in maintaining public safety on the railway."

I asked the BTP how much this would cost:

£1.5m including procurement / training, ongoing costs are approximately £300,000 a year.

This is a significant amount, at least at a time of substantial budget cuts across central government.

One would thereby expect that the costs of the current practice of using armed officers as necessary from other police forces would have been costed. After all, the Minister had said that it was important to "reduce the burden on other police forces". I asked the BTP how much the current practice cost them:

Armed officers from other forces regularly respond to incidents on behalf of BTP. There is no cost to BTP.

Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps it is a cost for other police forces, and not the BTP. But at least the BTP could tell me how often they do call upon armed officers from other forces over the last few years.

BTP does not have this information immediately available.

This was astonishing.

I even waited a day or two to see if they could find out. One would think that given an expensive procurement exercise, and the wider public interest in arming the police, someone at the BTP would know.

But it would seem not: nobody appeared to have this information.

However, the BTP were going to arm their police and commit to a lengthy procurement exercise anyway.

I also asked about the evidence behind some of the other contentions which had been made for arming the BTP. For example, why was it contended that the sight of armed BTP officers would "reassure the public"? What particular evidence is there for this contention?

The primary purpose is to increase resilience, improve response and deter potential terrorists. We hope that the public will feel that everything is being done to ensure their safety and security, but we are very aware of the danger of alarming rather than reassuring them. The policing style will be important and we will be endeavouring to integrate armed patrols into normal policing.

So there was a "hope" but no evidence.

What about the contention that the officers will be "an added deterrent to potential terrorists"? What particular evidence was there for this contention?

The deployment of armed officers at vulnerable locations - whether that be airports or other potential targets for terrorism is a well established response to threat.

Again, no evidence.

Importantly, the ministerial statement does not pretend that there is any specific threat to which this is a response. On closer examination the sequence of bureaucratic assertions in the rest of the ministerial statement do not appear to have any real meaning either.

All that has happened is that the BTP have taken upon themselves to ask to be armed, and at significant expense, even though they seem to have no idea how often armed assistance as ever been required in the last few years. They can only "hope" that we will be reassured.

I asked the Department of Transport for whether armed police would become as common a sight at train stations as they are at airports. Their answer:

These will be operational decisions taken by the BTP.

But as BTP stated:

Armed patrols at transport locations are not new. They are seen daily at airports throughout the UK. The deployment of highly visible armed officers is a nationally recognised operational tactic designed to provide deterrence, immediate response and reassurance.

I also asked the Department of Transport whether this cross government policy was imposed on the BTP. No, it simply came from the BTP:

Last December the BTP submitted a request to the Government for approval to strengthen their resources with an armed capability. These proposals have been carefully considered across Government before this decision was taken.

The BTP had deployed the resource argument:

Until now, armed patrols have been provided by geographic forces, which in itself is a drain on specialist resource which is under increasing demand, particularly at times when threat is heightened or specific intelligence exists. As a result of this pressure on existing resources it has been agreed that there is a need to increase the number of officers available to provide armed patrols when required.

However, as we have seen, the BTP do not seem to know the extent of this "drain" and "increasing demand". And one rather suspects the Department of Transport do not know either, and has just accepted the BTP's word for it.

So we have more armed police, and at more expense, but not in respect of any specific threat or for any apparent operational need. It may well be that there is good reason and good evidence; but this has not been disclosed.

As it is, the introduction of armed officers at the BTP is consistent with them casually wanting to have an armed unit, and the Department of Transport just as casually nodding it through. Soon, just as casually, we will undoubtedly get used to armed police at train stations and boarding trains.

And then, one day, someone will get shot.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.