From the archive: Interview with Chief Constable Stephen House – 19.11.12

From next April, Scotland will have a single police force

by Nov 19, 2012 No Comments

When Steve House was appointed as the Chief Constable of Scotland’s new single police force in September, it came as little surprise to those who know him.

In fact it was greeted with very little fanfare from outside the Thin Blue Line of Scottish policing either.

He was, after all, already the guv’nor of the nation’s biggest force and was regarded as pretty much a shoe-in for the job despite four other candidates vying for the post.

And when he eventually emerged the victor of the contest, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill only added to the law enforcement folklore around the man at Strathclyde.

Hailing his “impressive track record”, MacAskill said House had “the skills and experience to lead the service as we embark on this new era.” And as an early advocate of a single Scottish force – unlike at least one other prominent rival for the post – House could claim foresightedness as well.

But it is worth looking back on the journey towards uniting the policing clans, which arguably began as soon as the eight jurisdictions were created along old local government lines in 1975.

Paddy Tomkins – Scotland’s former Chief Inspector of Constabulary – is an old contemporary of House in their days at Sussex Police in the early 1980s.

He also lit the touch paper for reform with his 2009 “swansong” report, which grappled with Scotland’s increasingly complex policing needs in the 21st century.

“I would say that the eight-force structure was just a brief stop on the process towards a more meaningful structure in terms of managing operations, managing public expectations and managing limited resources,” he tells Holyrood.

“And of course events of the past three or four years, in terms of the global economic crisis, has really brought those things into sharp focus. So it was sustainable while it was sustainable. But it was never going to be sustainable in the long term.

“Let’s face it; the eight force structure was a political accommodation at the time. It wasn’t based on operational imperatives.” Tomkins insists also, whilst proponents of a single force were initially regarded as the “dissenting voice”, his paper helped create an eventual crossparty consensus.

And whether House is the right candidate for the job, Tomkins insists: “If you know Steve as I do, there should be absolutely no surprise that he was appointed to this role.

“His degree of clear-sightedness and determination to deliver will serve the new structure very well. I think he will be an excellent leader.” The policy decision – that a single force was the right way to go – resulted in the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill, which fell onto the statute book in January this year.

You could even say – with the exception of the unions, unsettled over the ever-present threat of job losses – that the path to the single force has thus far been an uncharacteristically harmonious one.

But as the Chef de Mission, House knows he will have to pick his way through a cluttered political landscape before the force goes live on 1 April next year.

We meet at his ‘interim’ office, amidst the woodpanelled halls and rooms of Tulliallan Castle, in the grounds of the Scottish Police College.

It is an unlikely setting for a modern copper, to be surrounded by faded wallpaper, hanging portraits and leather couches, but its central Scotland location, near Alloa, is a handy one.

It is, as House duly points out, also his seventh police force after a slow but steady rise through the ranks, having started out as a constable on England’s south coast.

But unbeknown to many, House – with his Middle England but not quite Home Counties accent – was actually born in Castlemilk, in the south of Glasgow, in 1957.

His father worked at the Institute of Virology at Glasgow University and House went to Kelvinside Academy.

During that time the family moved around the city – first to Bishopbriggs and then to Inchinnan.

They relocated again to London when his father got a job as manager of laboratories at Imperial Cancer Research and House, aged 11, soon lost his accent at school in the capital.

It was just after completing his A-levels, which he admits were “not particularly good”, that he first set his sights on the police.

But he was advised instead to go to university by recruitment officers at his local force.

He enrolled at Aberdeen University and despite the hedonistic temptations of student life, remained focused on a career in policing.

That desire perhaps grew even stronger as a young man, with two memorable and positive encounters with cops.

One was an admittedly painful experience as it involved him getting punched in the face in a chip shop queue – for the ‘crime’ of wearing a Newcastle United scarf.

The tragic irony, House explains, is it wasn’t even his scarf – it belonged to a friend – and the “bloke” who lamped him thought it was another team.

House refuses to divulge if he even has a footballing allegiance, which is perhaps understandable given the often sectarian nature of Scottish football.

He simply adds, matter of factly: “The police turned up and did a good job.” But the second – and these are pretty much the early role models he can remember – was on a night out with his girlfriend in Aberdeen’.

“Whenever I met the police in Aberdeen they were always very friendly and talkative.

I remember I was on my way to a fancy dress party in Union Street and we couldn’t find the place and there was these two Grampian cops talking to this drunk, who was completely paralytic.

“They were really having a hard time with it and he’s up against the wall and they were just ‘shut up’, and I’m sort of standing politely behind – because I was taught to be polite by my parents – and my girlfriend was next to me, sort of standing there, and I looked round and there was this huge cop who said to this drunk, ‘just shut up, I’m going to talk to this nice young man and his girlfriend for a minute’. And he turned round and said, ‘what can we do for you?’ And I said, ‘I’m trying to find such and such street’. And he said, ‘oh, yeah, it’s that way.’ ‘Thanks very much, officer.’ And he said, ‘My pleasure, have a nice time.’ We then walked off before he turned back to his guy and said, ‘right, you!’ That was impressive.” After his studies, he travelled south again, this time to join Sussex Police as a probationer, despite his mother’s concern that he would be in harm’s way.

He tells Holyrood: “I don’t think they [his parents] were entirely over-the-moon about it initially, no. I think my mother, as mothers will do, was worried about personal safety and I think they had more in mind lawyer or something which they saw as being ‘professional’. I think they’re quite happy now but I don’t think at the time they were absolutely delighted.” That fear was put into sharp focus when, four years into his service, he chased a canteen fruit machine thief across a roof – and promptly fell through.

Lifting his trouser leg slightly to reveal the scar, he adds: “I’ve got three or four bolts in my ankle but that was about as exciting as it got, really. It wasn’t the most glorious of criminal enterprises, though, I have to say.” House was also on the early shift the day after the 12th of October, 1984, when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

Five people were killed in the explosion, which targeted the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her Conservative Party gathered for its annual conference.

“I spent quite a lot of time actually on it because they set up a command and control. It was basically a glorified caravan on the seafront, right near the hotel and I worked out of there for a couple of weeks. So it was very interesting, we saw the Met anti-terrorist unit come down and deal with all that. That was quite interesting in a way because what they did – in these high-tech days it seems a bit crude – but they effectively set up a conveyor belt from the street into the guts of the hotel and put all the rubble onto the conveyor belt. It came down the conveyor belt and they filled it into bins, rubbish bins, and then took them away and we never saw any more of it. But what happened was they sifted all the rubbish, including the stuff that got thrown onto the beach, and they found the fingerprint of the bomber on the timing mechanism amongst all the rubble. So, it might have looked like a fairly crude and prehistoric way of going about it but they got their man.” It was from the south coast that House’s career trajectory began. He admits that he has never been afraid to go where the opportunity takes him and that it was, and in some cases still is, a fairly “exceptional” thing for most police officers to do.

When asked what personal sacrifices he has had to make to achieve his goals in his 32-year career, he replies bluntly: “I didn’t make any personal sacrifice. You’d have to ask my wife and children about that and I’m not going to let you do that. But honestly, no, I mean, I’ve just been fortunate I’ve been supported by the family that’s moved with me and supported me.” Instead, he suggests his fleet-footedness has actually been a positive, working for forces as diverse as West Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and the Met.

“You have an awful lot of contacts in forces that you’ve left. I can probably pick up the phone and speak to more people around the UK than most Chief Constables can because I’ve worked with so many of them. It’s a positive, really, I would say. If you’re the sort of person who wants to find their place in the community and spend 30 years with family and friends next door and have that, then that’s not what I have, that’s not what my family has. We’ve done it differently, I guess.” So it’s little wonder, when asked to describe himself, that he almost immediately plucks out the word “relentless”. It is no doubt that steely determination to get to the top of the tree that has driven him to where he is now, a point he illustrates neatly through his time at the Met.

“I wanted to be the boss; I wasn’t in London. It was a very senior position, it was Assistant Commissioner, so you’re near the top of the Met, with the Deputy Commissioner above you, and you’re in charge of thousands of people, but ultimately, you’re responsible to the Commissioner.

When I saw the advert for Strathclyde, I wanted to be the person who had the ultimate responsibility; I didn’t want to be responsible to another cop.

You’ve always got a… everybody’s got a boss. It doesn’t matter who you are. Alex Salmond’s got a boss, in terms of he’s accountable to Parliament, he’s accountable to the people of Scotland and to the media. Nobody’s on their own but I wanted to be at the top of an organisation, that I can lead an organisation in the direction that was the right direction. And that’s what we did in Strathclyde, so that was the attraction of moving there. I think after five years in Strathclyde I was ready for a new challenge and it just so happens that the Police Service of Scotland has come along and that’s the next challenge.” And running a new force, which involves uniting eight amorphous policing areas, amid shrinking budgets will indeed be a challenge.

Just last week, a gulf opened between House and the new Scottish Police Authority, over the new governance regime.

While House is content that many of the 6,500 police civilian workers are employed, in contractual terms by the SPA, he is firmly of the view those staff, like all officers, should report to him.

However, Vic Emery, Chair of the SPA, has told Holyrood that the support staff should be subsumed within his chain of command.

“All of the police staff, no matter where they work, will report to and their employment contract will be with the SPA, not with the Police Service of Scotland,” said Emery, a former senior adviser on the Edinburgh trams project.

That view was reinforced by a story in The Herald, on the 9th of November, in which he was quoted as saying: “What we have indicated in our early discussions with the Chief Constable is that the conventional arrangements where all support functions and staff are automatically within the direction of the Chief Constable require to be considered differently.” But for House, the matter is simple: there is no wording contained in the Act which explicitly dictates the SPA be given a managerial role.

He does concede, however, that like all Acts, it is capable of interpretation and that the governance regime has not been adequately defined.

But operationally, he says he needs jailors, mechanics, accountants and control room staff to fall under his “direction and control”.

“I think we need to make sure we get the right architecture between ourselves and the Police Authority in place. Their role is to subject us to significant scrutiny to make sure we are doing the right job, that we are spending money properly, that we are recruiting people fairly. And it’s also to provide and maintain the Police Service. It’s their budget, it’s not my budget. The support staff are their employees, not my employees but I need to have, on a day-to-day basis, the ability to use both police officers and support staff as a combined entity.

“It’s no good me just having police officers and not having anything to do with finance, or HR, or ICT, because it’s all one machine or organism. It needs to be under the command of one person so getting that right, that’s an early challenge.

“I think there’s a significant advantage to policing if many of them report direct to me. And then I have the accountability to the Chair of the Authority and I don’t agree, to be blunt, I don’t agree that a lot of those people, those support services, should report to the Police Authority direct. I don’t think that’s the right model.” With just months to go, House is also adamant the matter must be settled soon as he doesn’t want public patience for the new force to be tried by undignified “squabbling”.

He adds: “I have to say I think it needs to be resolved pretty quickly. You know, we’re about 19 weeks away from the single force going live now.

We’re going to make some decisions and we’ve got to make them pretty quick.” Another area which is causing House anxiety – for the simple reason he wants to let the staff affected know – is how many civilian workers could end up losing their jobs.

He insists the controversial 3,000 figure, recently attributed to him, was based on an overly simplistic calculation and failed to appreciate other savings that could be made.

But is it not reasonable to come up with a figure of his own?

“Not really, I can tell you that it won’t be 3,000.

That was the figure that was quoted before – that I said it was going to be 3,000. I never said it was going to be 3,000. If you take the budget gap and divide it by the average on-cost, total cost of the support staff, you get to about 3,000. But that suggests we’re not going to do anything else to save money, and of course, we’re going to try and save as much money as we possibly can before we look at voluntary redundancy. But anyone who has done this before will tell you, you have to look at voluntary redundancy because it’s where you save a lot of money. We will lose some because there’s some duplication of jobs, there’ll be eight forces coming together.

“We don’t have to identify all those job losses before the 1st of April but we want to get on with it as soon as possible because the earlier we can let people know and they can make some choices, then, if they leave then we’re already starting to balance the budget.” And that budget is a significant one. The force has been tasked with making savings of £1.4bn over 15 years. It is not going to be an easy task for House, who is signed up to a four-year contract, to deliver the annual increments towards that target.

The Scottish Government has also committed itself to maintaining ‘1,000 extra police’ on the streets.

The latest Police Officer Quarterly Strength Statistics show that there were 17,373 police officers in Scotland on 30 June 2012.

House knows any slippage in that number – or any other performance indicator for that matter – and politicians will “seek” him out.

He also faces the not inconsiderable task of maintaining a 37-year low in crime.

“The fact that we’ve got a 37-year low in crime is a challenge because keeping it going is going to be difficult. We’re facing significant budget cuts so keeping performance going against budget cuts is going to be a challenge. I think it’s doable, let me be clear about that, it’s absolutely doable. I’m not one of these people who subscribe to the idea that because we’re going through so much change, a dip in performance is inevitable and we just have to accept that. I don’t think the Scottish public expect that. I don’t think they’ll accept it and I certainly don’t accept it or expect it to happen.” But House insists he is committed to the new force and reacts with some exasperation when asked about that level of commitment.

He dismisses the idea that he was ever the frontrunner – despite being widely touted – for the Met Police Commissioner post, which went to Bernard Hogan-Howe last year.

Although, rather amusingly, he does have to halt the photographer because the force peak cap nearest to his desk is indeed a Met Police one.

“I signed up for a four-year contract which is what I intend to do so if you’re asking a veiled question, ‘will I go off to the Met?’ I sincerely doubt that that’s ever going to happen. By the time I’ve finished my four years here, I think I will have done enough, that’ll be something like 37 years policing.

I think that’s probably enough policing.” During his time at Strathclyde, House was keen to pilot new initiatives in tackling domestic violence and gang violence and did so with considerable success, halving serious violent crime in Glasgow city centre in the last five years.

Those approaches relied on greater partnership working with other agencies, and it’s probably safe to say a move away from the lock ‘em up model of the past.

Will that be his strategy to further reduce crime in Scotland as a whole? Is he content for bobbies to start taking up roles more akin to social workers, for example?

“There’s absolute space for it, yes. The Violence Reduction Unit has done and is doing great things.

I don’t doubt their ability, constantly, to go out there and find new things that could help us reduce violence. I think the key to success, though, is taking those initiatives and mainstreaming them and making them scalable.

“And that brings you back to VRU and the pilot they ran in the East End of Glasgow to try and interdict the gangs, get people out of gang activity.

If we can get something like that, that is scalable, not just in gangs but youth crime across the whole of Scotland, you’re onto a real success story because you turn people away from a life of crime, you’ve given them a better life, you’re protecting victims that they might victimise and you’re also making family life stronger because they don’t tear families apart.” But will the public notice a change in the policing environment? There is undoubted concern over a loss of local police stations and contact points in communities House, however, insists the necessary architecture will be in place and that the public, rightly, should not expect a dip in performance because of the changes.

He is in the midst of creating 14 divisions across Scotland with a Chief Superintendent running each one. And there will be subtle changes in that vehicles will feature the logos and livery of ‘Police Scotland’. But he says most uniforms, his old force Strathclyde included, had already been “de-badged” to say, simply, ‘Police’.

“This is a huge opportunity for us. The people working on this feel really positive. This will be a better police service for Scotland. It’s going to be hugely local, very locally plugged into the community. We will absolutely drive that into the community, no doubt about that. It’s going to have specialists available across Scotland as and when they are needed in a way that’s never been achieved before. And it’s going to improve local engagement in policing because you’re going to have far more political representation involved in policing, locally, than we’ve ever had before. If you think about it, we had eight police authorities before. What we’re going to have now is 32 scrutiny committees looking at local policing at a very local level. Th at is actually far more powerful.” When asked how that will look on the ground, he adds: “Th ere will be a regional approach to it in that obviously we’ve got, we’ll probably be placing an ACC, Assistant Chief Constable, somewhere in the north because it’s going to be unreasonable to expect them to travel back and forth on a daily basis. It’s just not practical so they’ll be based somewhere in the north although I’ll expect them to be here a couple of days a week. So there’s that set up but eff ectively we’re planning on going to a divisional structure across Scotland and I envisage that being 14 divisions across Scotland with a Chief Superintendent running each of those divisions.” Throughout the course of the interview, it is fair to say this interviewer has been dying to ask the new Chief Constable if he watches cop shows.

As much as we could talk all day in the slightly stilted language of governance regimes and strategic objectives, the moment is seized.

“I was a big fan of Hill Street Blues – that was great – still am, in fact. I’ve got the box set and when I get some time, I’ll watch that. I liked NYPD Blue as well, I thought that was pretty good.

“The Bill was good in its day but it became a bit of a soap, really, it was Eastenders in uniform for a while so I went off that.” But what about The Wire? Surely, every self-respecting cop should have watched Bunk and McNulty clearing the drug-infested corners of Baltimore?

Reassuringly, House does own the DVD box set but has yet to get round to watching it. And much to my surprise, he has watched Homicide: Life on the Street, its lesser-known precursor, describing it as “great” and “a bit gritty.” But do any cop shows ever reflect what it’s truly like to serve as a police officer, in as much as many of them have been feted for ‘coming close’?

“I doubt it very much. I’ve been doing it for 32 years and I’m still getting used to it. It is a culture of its own, I have to say. Th at’s good and not always so good. We need to be more accessible to the public, really. I don’t think many cop shows show it in reality. I don’t even think fl y-on-the-wall cop shows show the reality of policing because they’re so highly edited, that they’re not real.

“When I was in Strathclyde, I would talk to every probationer that we signed on. When you met them later the things that came, you know, the paperwork came as a huge shock to them. I think it wasn’t the constant ‘bish, bash, bosh’ that some of them expected it to be. It was a lot more about public service and community service and talking to people than they thought it was going to be, and maybe that was a surprise. So I think you have to get into it to understand it, really. It’s basics, it’s talking to people and providing a local service. It’s not rocket science.”

Kevin O'Sullivan Kevin O'Sullivan

“Kevin has had a varied career in journalism having worked for many of Fleet Street’s finest including the Sun and the Daily Express. He completed his NCTJ in 2004 and began working for his local paper in Chatham, Kent, before moving to a national news agency. Kevin relocated to Edinburgh in 2010 and had stints with Scottish national papers as well as the Aberdeen Evening Express. He joined Holyrood magazine as Social Affairs Correspondent in September 2012 and has already becoming an avid committee watcher at the Scottish Parliament. Kevin has been slow on social media but now accepts Twitter can be used for work after previously thinking it was for moaning about the Olympics closing...

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