The First Minister was yesterday forced to reiterate her support for Scotland’s chief constable amid criticism from politicians and officers over his leadership of the single force.
Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Police Federation conference she has confidence in Sir Stephen House, albeit warned that no chief constable can be allowed to be a “law unto themselves”.
It came as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie told rank-and--file officers Sir Stephen had to “change his ways” or else step aside following controversy over matters such as stop and search.
Each of the political leaders from Scotland’s four largest political parties were asked by a member of the audience whether the chief constable’s days were numbered.
“After a series of disappointing results football club chairmen often deliver the dreaded vote of confidence in support of their manager,” sergeant Scott Meechan declared to loud approval from fellow rank-and-file officers.
“This is often swiftly followed by a change of manager and the manager moving on by mutual consent. The First Minister recently stated she had full confidence in the Chief Constable. Should Team Police Scotland expect a new manager?”
The First Minister said: “I have confidence in the Chief Constable and I think the police should have confidence in the Chief Constable and more importantly than that, I think the public should.”
However, Sturgeon added: “No chief constable is or ever can be or be allowed to be a law unto themselves. That is absolutely the position.”
Asked to clarify, Sturgeon said she was not suggesting House had become a “law unto himself” but rather she was “making the point in principle” about any chief constable.
She said it was for politicians of all parties to make it very clear that Scotland’s top police officer is accountable to the Scottish Police Authority and accountable more broadly to the public.
“The Chief Constable, like anybody who holds his position, should and I have no doubt will, reflect on some of the discussions and debates and disagreements that we’ve seen in recent months and reflect very carefully and very openly and I would expect the Chief Constable to be doing that,” she added.
Lib Dem leader Rennie, who has been a vocal critic of several policy decisions taken by Police Scotland, acknowledged sensitivities around claims of political interference but said he did not have confidence in Sir Stephen at this time.
“If he doesn’t restore that confidence, if he doesn’t change his ways, then he is going to have to change his job because we can’t carry on like this,” said Rennie.
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy told SPF members he did not know the Chief Constable and would not judge him based on media attention, though remained highly critical.
“I’m not going to call for his head, because I judge him by his results,” he said. “The only advice I would give is that he should do more of his talking on the pitch.
“It’s about leading the organisation and taking people with him. It’s not about the often confused and contradictory testimony that comes from Police Scotland to the Scottish Parliament.
“It’s about not denying there are targets when there are obviously targets. It’s not that degree of secrecy and lack of transparency when it came to arming police officers. It shouldn’t lead to a public outcry before there’s change in policy.
“These things should be done by consent and I think in some ways it’s been done in a very headstrong manner, rather than by consent. I think things need to change and things need to improve.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said it was not a job for individual opposition leaders to call for him to go, albeit expressed concerns about an erosion of trust in the force’s senior leadership among officers and the public.
With the publication of their third annual police plan yesterday, Police Scotland said they were "focussing on what communities across Scotland" want from the force.
Earlier the First Minister restated the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintain 1,000 additional police officers and said she had “no interest in and will not be part of cutting police pay” in light of changes south of the border.
Rennie, Murphy and Davidson all told SPF members that their respective parties intend to maintain officer numbers as well as pay.
However, SPF chairman Brian Docherty earlier warned the police budget “can be cut no more”
amid concerns over Police Scotland’s ability to meet expected savings in the year ahead.