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Interview: New BTP Federation Chair Stuart Cowan

Stuart Cowan took over the role of Chair of the British Transport Police Federation last month.

Stuart Cowan first joined BTP in 2005, initially serving in Edinburgh. He has primarily worked as a response officer, but has also worked in Neighbourhood Policing. He has additionally previously been a prison officer with the Scottish Prison Service.

He became a Fed rep in 2016 and was Secretary of the D Division (Scotland) committee and national lead for Health and Safety.

He takes on the role of BTP Fed Chair at a time when tensions are high over pay, mental health and officer safety.

Earlier in the year, BTP Federation put themselves under independent review and eight recommendations have subsequently been issued that Mr Cowan will have the job of implementing.

They include a review of the website contract, ensuring that membership with the Fed is automatic upon enrolment with a voluntary subscription to the legal fund, and that one member of the Executive makes a planned visit to each of the seven areas of BTP annually.

“The Executive always have to have an attachment with cops on the frontline, for me that’s absolutely crucial,” Stuart Cowan told Police Oracle.

“I was a uniformed PC for 17 years – so I’m fully aware of that need […] it’s crucial that you truly get a feel for what the officers are going through, the struggles they are facing and the challenges within the force.

“I want to go out and see officers in different areas, different departments and it won’t just be uniform who I’ll be working to do that with.

“I want officers to see that we genuinely do care and that my job is to try and make things better for them.”

Clearly one of the biggest challenges facing officers at the moment is pay - and it’s something at the forefront of Mr Cowan’s mind.

“It absolutely kills me that we’ve got officers having to use food banks. It becomes quite an emotional subject to think that officers are struggling to pay for food, to put on heating, use energy,” he explained.

“I don’t think policing has ever been paid their worth for what they do and we need to find a way to get to a place where things are more palatable. People are having to rely on overtime to live.

"Everyone in policing should be embarrassed and everyone in government should be ashamed."

His predecessor, Nigel Goodband, had said he was firmly against moving towards employment law, but Mr Cowan said it shouldn’t be completely removed from the conversation.

“I don’t know if I would commit to saying that I don’t think there should be the right to strike. It’s certainly a source of frustration that the government are obviously fully aware that we can’t.”

He also underlined that he was not advocating as such for the force to break away from the Home Office pay deal but that it would be foolish to not consider options carefully.

“I think it’s important that we always have conversations and it would be foolish to shut the door on anything. We’ve always got to take whatever gives us the opportunity to put the best thing in place for officers,” he explained.

“That said, I do think you’re stronger together and I think there’s a lot of really good federations out there. Certainly since I’ve come into the role, I’ve been quite humbled by the reach out from other federations and the support network that’s there.”

A few months ago, BTP was the first force to authorise Special Constables to use taser – Mr Cowan would like to see BTP moving forward with and possibly looking at probationers also carrying tasers after a reasonable period into their role.  

With regards to officer assaults, Mr Cowan said the focus should be on deterrence.

“We will never get to a stage where officer is never assaulted again, but we can give them the tools to ensure they are as equipped as possible.

“What is a proper deterrent, what stops someone from assaulting an officer? I think there’s so much work that can be done there. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have the answers, but it’s something I want to work on.”

Meanwhile, an initiative has already been put in place for Federation training with a mental health nurse who will give an insight into mental health challenges and how to be best equipped to deal with it.

Mr Cowan said mental health is not just the role of federations, however, but of forces also – calling for it not to be a “tick-box exercise” and saying that policing has to “get it right”.

“I come from a uniform background and I know the challenges that officers face. Until a few months ago I was part of that,” he said.

“Many of those in government that make decisions aren’t going to food banks, aren’t thinking about whether they can put their heating on. They don’t have those challenges - they certainly have a detachment from officers and I don’t want us to have that detachment.”

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