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House call

House call

It was approaching 10.35pm on Friday 29 November 2013 when the phone rang. “I was sitting with my wife watching TV, I think Graham Norton was just about to come on,” recalls Sir Stephen House. “And I got a phone call from the duty inspector telling me our helicopter had crashed. It was surreal. I was struggling to take on board what he was saying and I think he was struggling to understand what he was saying, actually. There was a sort of disbelief in his voice and certainly disbelief in mine as well.”

The Police Scotland helicopter had come down on the roof of the Clutha Bar, Glasgow, with more than 100 people inside. By the time Police Scotland’s Chief Constable got in his car and drove to their Helen Street complex in Govan, an operations room was up and running, specialists were en route to be briefed, and the scene had been secured. In the days that followed, the death toll rose to ten, including the helicopter crew of pilot, Captain David Traill, PC Tony Collins and PC Kirsty Nelis.

Having joined Sussex Police in the early 80s, House was working the early shift in Brighton the day after the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, targeting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her Conservative Party gathered for its annual conference. He was an Assistant Commissioner at the Met when four suicide bombers struck in central London on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people. The Clutha, however, will always stick out in his mind. “I have never lost three members of staff before,” he tells Holyrood. It is that Friday night on the banks of the River Clyde that represents both the low point and the high point – given the remarkable police and public response – for House one year into the single service. “I think what it did was remind a lot of people there are more important things in life than turf wars and various other issues like that,” he says.

There have, however, been various other issues: tense relations with the Scottish Police Authority; controversy over use of stop and search; Edinburgh saunas; proposed closure of control rooms; changes to front counter opening hours – just a few that have played out in the pages of the press in the year since eight forces became one. “One of the things that has definitely changed is we all imagined that when we went from eight forces to one it would be different [but] I don’t think we appreciated just how different it would be in terms of profile,” says House, reciting a phrase used by one candidate in interviews for an Assistant Chief Constable post that ‘if a patrolling officer in Peterhead drops a pin you can hear the noise in Holyrood’.

“No, it’s not water off a duck’s back,” he retorts, almost dismissively, regarding criticism he has often been a focal point for over the past year. “I’m a public servant at the end of the day and I take any criticism, any genuine criticism that has got a foundation in fact, I take very seriously and I do look at is there truth to that? Have I done something wrong? Is there something I should be concerned about? I think it would be wrong to ignore any criticism, no matter who it comes from.

“Do I let it cripple me? No, I don’t believe I do. Am I confident in what we’re doing? Absolutely. Do I believe it was the right decision? Yes. Do I think we’ve done a pretty good job implementing it? Yes, I am very proud of what we’ve done, very proud of it. [That] doesn’t mean I don’t listen to what critics say. There are some intelligent people out there raising points. I think it’s inevitable I am the focal point because, as you say, it is a disciplined service, it is hierarchical, I’m the person at the top of that pyramid, therefore, that’s bound to be the case. But I have to say I don’t seek it out – it just happens. I don’t want any sort of notoriety or celebrity but it does come with the job. You have to have that element of figurehead, otherwise, in my view, you’re not doing the job properly, and you have to make some difficult statements and you have to set direction and pace. That’s what leadership is about.”

Intentional or not, House has attracted a public image for being outspoken. His defiant streak is perhaps unsurprising given he was one of the first proponents of a single service on arrival at Strathclyde Police in the final few months of 2007. “I think individual politicians sometimes need to remember that their party supported this and supported it strongly,” he says. “We have some people who agree with the concept but don’t like the implementation, well, that’s their observation. My view is that it has gone pretty well.”

Last November, rather than deliver a prepared speech before the Scottish International Policing Conference, he opted to go off script in response to that morning’s Audit Scotland report on implementation and planning of police service reform – or, more specifically, the reaction in the “red-tops”. The public spending watchdog had demonstrated a “somewhat naïve approach”, though his objection did not lie with Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General, and her team. It lay with the press and politicians for their shorthand assessment. “I’ve reflected on it and I know it upset a few people [but] I stand by what I said,” he tells Holyrood. House even invited a show of hands from officers in the room regarding the existence of performance measures within Police Scotland in direct response to one MSP’s comment. The MSP in question – former director of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, Graeme Pearson – was sitting in the audience.
House insists he had “no issues with the content [of Audit Scotland’s report] at all”.

It did, however, make for somewhat uncomfortable reading, pointing to the absence of a full business case and the subsequent lack of clarity over how £1.1bn of savings are to be made by 2026. “I’m not going to go back in history and start defending what was done in terms of business cases, etc, because I wasn’t involved in all [of] that,” he says. “What I know is we’re balancing the budget this year, I believe we’ll balance it next year, I believe we’ll save the £1bn plus by 2026, which is what we were challenged to do. We’ll have a corporate plan for the next three years in place by the end of this month [the plan was signed off by the SPA on 26 March], which again, the Audit Scotland report was saying, ‘we’ll be very keen to see this’, well, they’ll see it. I think we’re achieving everything that Audit Scotland have challenged us to achieve. I think we’ll be in a good place on all of that in due course and I hope that Audit Scotland recognise that and publish as glowing a report as they feel is appropriate. And I hope that the red-tops pick that up and I am not naïve enough to think that they will.”

The financial picture – challenging as it is – is not just where Sir Stephen’s immediate concern lies, however. Police Scotland came into being on 1 April last year having garnered support from the major political parties at Holyrood bar the Liberal Democrats. Yet grumbles about a detrimental impact on local policing have been cross-party in nature, both in the chamber and in committee as the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing continues it inquiry into the matter. Suggestions of a one-size fits all approach owing its roots to the legacy Strathclyde force have resurfaced several times since Police Scotland’s inception.

“I’ll be candid, I think we need to do more to convince politicians that we’re serious about local policing,” he says. “It’s difficult for us, being non-politicians, to estimate how much of what they’re saying is genuine concern and criticism and how much of it is actually a political position that has to be adopted. Obviously we’re concerned about addressing the genuine issues that they have and I’m sure they, in response to that, would say, ‘well, all our issues are genuine’, but I have to respond, ‘well, they would say that wouldn’t they’. I’m quite certain, determined, convinced that we are a locally-based organisation.”

House points to the plethora of Twitter accounts created as “phenomenal in terms of evidence of local issues”, the existence of 32 local authority and 353 local ward plans, and a rise in community cops on the beat, for instance in the capital, as evidence. “To me, the local commitment is a real commitment,” he adds. “I just think we’re not convincing some observers of that. I don’t think the public are too concerned about it, but I think some observers need to be convinced of it.”

That task wasn’t helped by the political furore that accompanied proposals to close front counters at almost one in three stations across the country as part of plans to standardise opening hours nationwide. Changes in the nature of policing and the small numbers coming in and out of certain stations provided a rationale for the shake-up, which came into force on 3 March. Public consultation on the reforms had a haphazard feel to it, though, with Police Scotland subsequently taking the decision to extend it by 30 days.

“I have to listen to criticism and take it on board and think did we get that right or did we get it wrong and, quite clearly, we’ve not hit all the buttons on that communication,” admits House. “But when we forensically go back and review who we told, when we told, it wasn’t a bad communication exercise. Were we consulting with the public? We were doing some research; we did research ahead of it. Let’s be frank, if we’d gone to the public and said, right, they’re currently open 24 hours a day, we’re going to reduce those hours, do you think that’s a good idea? You don’t seriously think people would have gone, yes, that’s a good idea, because the people that didn’t care wouldn’t reply and the people that cared would be saying no. Very, very few people would have gone, yes, that’s good, I can see why you are doing that, because that’s not human nature. I think the concept that we consult with the public on all of this is not right.”

He rejects claims of a lack of engagement – Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont branded the process a “PR exercise” – and points to his direct accountability to the Scottish Police Authority as well as subsequent modifications (plans to remove a public counter facility at 65 stations were watered down in December to 62). “I don’t want newspapers [and] I don’t want petitions because it sounds as though we’re out of step with what the public wants, but actually, I’m not convinced how much of that was a real volume issue. I don’t deny a number of people are concerned about it and they signed the petitions and it’s right that we listen to them and we did moderate, we did change our minds on a couple [of matters]… I have to be fair to my people as well, they put a lot of effort into the communication exercise. I don’t think it was as short and as clumsy as people have suggested it was. I just think it wasn’t a message people wanted to hear, therefore, there was a lot of criticism of it.”

The closure of more than half the number of control rooms operated nationwide appeared to be a case of deja vu. Staff union Unison said the closures were “budget-driven cuts” that put 300 jobs at risk (Police Scotland put the worst-case scenario at 212). Maintaining the inherited set-up would have been “ridiculous”, says House, who insists the changes would have been pursued even if their budget was increasing. Current moves to put more uniformed personnel in some control rooms is a “temporary measure” to allow civilian staff who wish to take either voluntary redundancy or early retirement to do so ahead of closure, he insists, not – as Unison claimed – a “smokescreen” to make sure the force stays above a Scottish Government target of 17,234 police officers. Long term, House is looking for around 40 per cent of people in control rooms to be police officers.

Does he think police staff been unfairly targeted, though? “I can’t accept they have been unfairly targeted. We have a situation [where] we have some mandates from the Scottish Government which you well know – 17,234, no compulsory redundancy, no outsourcing. So our area of saving a significant amount of money is voluntary redundancy. So far, 600 people have left the organisation through voluntary redundancy, that’s where we’re saving a significant, not all of our money, but a significant amount of our money and reshaping our workforce as well. It’s not unfairly targeting, it’s a reality of life.”

A lot of staff want to take voluntary redundancy and are unhappy that they can’t be allowed to leave just yet, he claims. House does acknowledge, however, that civilian staff have had to cope with greater uncertainty, a result, he says, of the service’s inability to iron out with the Police Authority where responsibility for them ought to lie from day one. “We’re starting to be able to give them a certain degree of certainty as to who their line manager is and where they work and what the structures look like that but that has been slower than we would have wanted it to be,” he says. “So I think they’ve certainly been a victim of uncertainty and a bit of delay – we’re starting to get through that now.” One-to-one discussions with staff at Dumfries control room, which is set to close one year on from the single service going live, is continuing, he adds, in an effort to identify other possible roles for redeployment.

However, a week on from House inviting Holyrood into his office at Randolphfield, Stirling, things moved up a gear as Unison announced their intention to ballot members on strike action. “They [Police Scotland] are not providing the unions with answers to reasonable questions which we have consistently raised for many months now,” said George McIrvine, secretary of the union’s police staff Scotland branch. This after Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson, Graeme Pearson, described Police Scotland as a “family on the verge of breakdown” in a debate at Holyrood.

“There is an awful lot of talk about ‘oh morale is really low’,” says House. “Well, we’re going through massive change, so that always knocks morale. We do have to save money, we have got a voluntary redundancy scheme, we’re also, of course, in the middle of a public sector squeeze on budgets and the announcement has come out today, national UK-wise, about a 1 per cent pay rise. We’ve been in the same situation for a couple of years with our police officers and staff. From the 1st of April, police pension contributions is 14.25 per cent of salary, that’s a massive amount, that’s an increase. There have been big changes to public sector pensions, and that includes police pensions, and if you ask most cops, ‘what is it that’s worrying you at the moment?’ the answer is how much money they pay into their pension and what they get back and how long they’re going to have to work for. That’s affected morale far more than anything we’ve done structurally in Police Scotland and that’s not something that we or anyone else in Scotland can control.”

The same can be said, to an extent, regarding the number of officers at his disposal. Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, has publicly acknowledged the difficulty caused by the SNP’s pledge to maintain 1,000 extra police officers, based on 2007 levels, but said the majority administration is “obliged” to stand by it. This in the face of SPA chair Vic Emery using a very carefully crafted speech in December to warn that the Government’s target had been predicated on an “arbitrary” figure that needs to be reassessed. “He’s absolutely right it’s an arbitrary target,” says House. “You’ll know the story as well as I do. On the day parliament passed the 1,000 extra cops, somebody said, how many have you got and we said, 16,234 and they said, now it’s 17,234 – that’s about as arbitrary as you get.

“I’m quite willing to accept the debate that at some point in the future, we’ll be asked to ‘give a view, please, of how many cops you need to police Scotland’. I would suggest that that is best done by the police view, the Authority view, and probably the HMI view coming together in some sort of coalesced view of what the sort of numbers are. But it’s not a simple question, how many officers do you need to police Scotland. To what level?”

Police officer numbers dipped for a third successive quarter between 30 September and 31 December, leaving the single service just 24 above their 17,234 cut-off line. House predicts figures through to 31 March, once released, will either be stable or slightly up. “If I’m committed to 17,234 then I’ll try and provide the service that we possibly can with 17,234,” he says. “I’m not going to go hundreds above that because, frankly, that is going to incur huge extra cost. I have to balance the two, I can’t exceed my budget.”

A heightened focus on domestic abuse under Police Scotland, compared to its forerunners, has left House with something of a PR dilemma. The number of domestic incidents that result in a crime being recorded has shot up in certain parts of Scotland as a result of a more consistent approach. Overall crime figures are therefore likely to rise in the long term, putting paid to the much vaunted 39-year low for recorded crime.

“It will come to an end at some point eventually won’t it, let’s face it,” says House. “I understand it’s a very important thing for the public to understand that crime is coming down and in my view it is and that’s what most of the surveys say. Certainly, the chances of being involved in violent crime are reducing significantly and for most acquisitive crime as well. But 39 years ago, we recorded crime in different categories, in different ways, and in that 39-year period there have been changes of recording practices. I’m quite certain that we are completely ethical in the way that we approach recording crime now and that we will go along, if a victim says they have been a victim of crime, unless there is a very, very good reason for us to believe that that is not the case, then we record that crime, regardless of how easy it will be to detect. So I am very happy about the ethical approach we take to it.

“At some point, you have to come to the end of a reduction streak like that. If we’re saying to the public we want you to report more domestic abuse, we want you to tell us what is going on – and a recent EU survey said one woman in two suffers domestic abuse at some point in her life – well, we’re not getting that level of reporting yet so there must be more out there. We’re seeing so far this year, compared to last, a 38 per cent increase in rape reported to us. Rape numbers are not that big but 38 per cent is a huge increase, so we’re wanting people to come forward and tell us about crime and we are encouraging victims of hate crime to tell us about it. We can’t complain when they do, we can’t turn round and say ‘oh well, crime figures have gone up now’.”

What about claims of figures being massaged, however? “I recognise a constant worry by people that are these figures accurate. My view is that I think people are now convinced, despite somebody saying a few months ago that we didn’t have a performance regime, I think people are pretty convinced that we have a performance regime. The thing that we are alert to is where performance looks very bad, but more commonly where it looks very, very good, how they achieved that detection figure because we want to know. If that’s a true detection figure, we want to know how they’re doing that, let’s spread that good practice, let’s make sure that it’s a genuine figure. We send in our own audit team to check that, HMI audits what we do, we have got checks and balances for this sort of thing. And I am not saying that everybody is completely blameless. There may be one or two people somewhere that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing through laziness or through lack of understanding, but where they are, we find out about it, we deal with it. I don’t believe there is any systematic under-recording of crime anywhere – it is just too risky for people to do because it would come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

As the interview draws to a conclusion, Sir Stephen’s irritation with the public airing Police Scotland has received bubbles to the surface again. “You would not believe the number of red-herring stories we get. The famous one was circulated quite publicly, ‘well you’ve got this over-aggressive policy on seatbelts and there is a little old lady in a certain part of the country [who never got back in her car after receiving a ticket]’ – total crap. We looked at that area, we looked at every single ticket issued to women, we narrowed it down to a certain age group because it was, quote, ‘a little old lady’, and we went and saw the handful personally to get the circumstances of it. None of them had stopped driving and all of them were positive about the encounter. Absolute rubbish; it is one of these stories that circulates and has a life of its own and is put about by people and when you challenge it, they heard it from someone, who heard it from someone, and it’s made up stuff.”

I tell him that I first heard the anecdote raised by the Scottish Police Federation in a meeting with SPA members a number of weeks before it surfaced in the press. “Oh, was it? It’s not accurate.”

A hope that Police Scotland will become less of a political football in year two is a “pretty forlorn one”, concedes House. Is he still enjoying the position a year in, however? “Another day in paradise, every day.” Is he relieved not to be in charge of the Met, which has faced a troubled 2014 so far? “Am I relieved I’m not in charge of the Met? That is a very difficult one to answer. I am pretty happy where I am now, thanks. My mother always said what’s for you won’t go past you. I’m here.”

Read the most recent article written by Alan Robertson - Time for Michael Matheson to live up to his motto of ‘smart on crime’

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