Call to arm Scottish transport police as London leads way

A MOVE to arm teams of British Transport Police officers on the London Underground and railways has sparked calls for armed patrols at Scottish stations to improve the "safety of the public" and deter terror attacks.

The calls came as Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told MPs that transport police officers would be allowed to carry weapons for the first time, though only in the UK capital initially.

But Alex Robertson, the head of the British Transport Police Federation (BTPF), told The Scotsman that it "would be desirable" to arm those patrolling train stations in Scotland and other parts of the country when a terrorist threat arose.

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Mr Hammond had told the House of Commons yesterday that armed BTP officers would be "deployed as appropriate in response to the terrorism threat level at any given time" and promised that the move would "enhance" police operations.

Armed police from other regional forces across the UK sometimes patrol stations and trains, but the BTP is the only part of the service not allowed to carry weapons.

However, by the end of the year London-based BTP officers will be given guns. Mr Robertson, the chair of the BTPF, which represents the UK's transport police officers, said extending the move to Scotland and the rest of the UK would be "better" for public safety.

• Analysis: 'Show of weapons offers a deterrent effect'

He said: "It would be desirable for the whole country, but generally things like this start in London, as most of the intelligence would be about the London Underground and the main line.

"In the future, once there has been progress with this and if there was a reason to do it, we'd fully support extending this to Scotland and other parts of the UK. Having this at our disposal would be better for the safety of the public."

Senior Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone claimed that arming Scotland's 220 transport police officers could "be justified" if the travelling public was at risk of terror attacks.

He said: "I think the measures can be justified in the London context and should we ever be faced with a similar threat in Scotland it would be justified here. It's unlikely that you could ever use this for dealing with something other than terrorism though."

However, James Wyllie, a defence expert at the University of Aberdeen, said that arming BTP Officers outside London would be moving away from the "British tradition of not displaying weapons."

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He said: "Given the British tradition of not displaying weapons I think it would be desirable to restrict this to the metropole, as I'm not sure there are the same high-profile targets elsewhere."In London, people have grown used to seeing armed police and this latest development is part of that. Carrying guns does not stop bombs going off. This tends to be done by behind the scenes intelligence."

Meanwhile, the Transport Secretary told MSPs that it would not be a daily event to see armed officers at stations and they would be deployed "according to operational need".

Mr Hammond said: "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."

A BTP spokesman yesterday confirmed that no were no definite plans to arm its officers in other parts of the UK, but failed to rule out the move.

Armed officers from Scottish forces and other parts of the UK have previously been drafted in to help London during emergencies such as the 7/7 terrorist attack on the underground in 2005.

A BTP said: "We have no plans at this time to deploy them in Scotland. If this changes, we will first fully consult the Scottish Government."

Although responsibility for the BTP is reserved to Westminster, the licensing of officers to carry arms is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

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A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Secretary of State for Transport is planning to provide the British Transport Police with an armed response capability, and he has written to Scottish Ministers to advise them of this proposal. This is about improving existing policing capabilities and we understand the intention is to provide this capability in the London area, in time for the Oly-mpic Games and to address the wider threats that exist.

"There are no current plans to arm BTP Scottish-based officers."