Interview: Stephen House, Scotland’s top policeman

Chief Constable of Police Scotland Stephen House outside his office at the Scottish Police College. Picture: Robert Perry
Chief Constable of Police Scotland Stephen House outside his office at the Scottish Police College. Picture: Robert Perry
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WITH the merging of Scotland’s eight regional police forces into one national body, Stephen House was sworn in to lead it. So what makes him the right man to protect us all?

At approximately 11pm on the last day of March, Chief Constable Stephen House rose from his desk in Tulliallan Castle and drove in his Land Rover to Edinburgh, where, as midnight struck, he could be found making a foot patrol of Princes Street. From that moment, as 1 April began, he was the head of Police Scotland, a new national body formed by the merger of the eight regional forces.

Lothian and Borders no more. Strathclyde no more. Fife no more. And so on. It was a historic moment, and House, now Scotland’s top cop, felt the need to mark the occasion as if he were an ordinary bobby on the beat. “It was a bit of symbolism, a bit of ownership,” he says now. “Patrolling the capital city at midnight felt like the right thing to do.”

Stephen House, or Steve, as he calls himself, or Chief or Sir or Boss, as his 17,435 officers call him, is a lithe 55-year-old of middling height with hair silvering at the temples and a face creased by lines of care. He is, as usual, dressed in unceremonial black uniform, favouring the zip-up, standard-issue T-shirt worn by the police on the street rather than the shirt and tie one might expect from his seniority. Often, when he has an appointment with government ministers, he will make the trip to Holyrood by motorbike, and take the meeting while wearing his leathers. “Yeah,” he says. “They don’t seem to mind.”

We meet four days into the Police Scotland era. Tulliallan Castle, near Kincardine, is a turretted Georgian pile that since the 1950s has been part of the campus of the Scottish Police College and is now corporate headquarters to the new force. He comes out of his office to welcome me, and is immediately distracted by the flat-screen television in the corner of the waiting room. It isn’t on and he isn’t happy. He wants it to be showing the news, but it seems to be on the blink, and so straight away he’s fiddling with the buttons, hunting for the remote control and asking a staff member if it can be fixed in a tone of voice that suggests it had better be fixed, and pronto.

OK, so it’s just a bloke mucking about with a telly, but there’s something rather telling about this little scene. It seems to confirm two widespread beliefs about House – one, he’s a hands-on micro-manager who considers no detail beneath his pay grade; and two, that he’s a stern taskmaster who gets what he wants when he wants it.

House becomes Chief Constable of Police Scotland after five years as head of Strathclyde Police. Strathclyde was far and away the biggest force in the country, but already he has a sense that this new job is on a vast scale – both physically and in terms of what is required from him. He is ultimately responsible for the prevention and detection of crime in every part of the country, from Whithorn to Wick, Cape Wrath to the Lammermuir Hills. Wherever he goes within the nation, he is both master (to the police) and servant (to the people). “That,” he concedes, “feels very different.”

The size and nature of that responsibility means the job is more than a policing role; the person in charge has, arguably, an opportunity to shape the experience of living in this country and to help set its moral tone. It is, House acknowledges, about a vision for a better nation. What, then, does the job mean to him? “Outside of my family, it’s the most important thing in my life, and I’m sure my family would say, ‘Have you got the balance right?’”

And has he? “Probably not. In terms of hours, definitely not. I’ve always worked long hours. There are some jobs that you just can’t do on a Monday-to-Friday, eight-hour basis. I don’t switch off. I am here from about ten past seven in the morning, and it’s a hectic pace until half-past six at night, then I’m in the car going home, and for an hour I’m on the hands-free. I don’t turn the phone off ever.”

House is a little defensive when asked about hinterland. He knows he doesn’t have a good media-friendly answer, and it seems to vex him a little that he might be judged for his lack of interests outwith the police. “I really haven’t got an ‘outwith the police’,” he says. “There isn’t much else. I’m either here or I’m at home with my family. I’m not an extrovert. I think I’m very introverted. I was brought up to work hard. My father was very similar.”

So how important is a stable home life when doing such a demanding job? “This is my seventh police force. We’ve moved house times uncountable. My children have moved school more than is good for them, I guess. They are a very supportive family and it wouldn’t have been possible to do this without them.”

House lives in Helensburgh. He has been married for 26 years and has three children, two girls and a boy, aged between 15 and 25. He earns £208,000 a year, and justifies this salary by saying that the public, in return, have 100 per cent of his time. He has not gone abroad on holiday for the last ten years and will not do so while in post. He is, as it says on his peaked cap, semper vigilo. It is not, though, about the money. Isn’t he the type of person who needs pressure? “Yeah, probably,” he admits. “I like to be busy. I like things happening. The status quo doesn’t work for me. There’s always a better way of doing things.”

Stephen House was born in Glasgow in 1957 and grew up first in Castlemilk, then Bishopbriggs, then Inchinnan. It was a happy childhood in Scotland, he says – playing out on the street and all that sepia-photo stuff. He was educated privately at Kelvinside Academy. His father, William, worked for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, finishing his career as a senior manager. His mother, Alice, worked in a laboratory and then, when she had children, raised the family. House has a younger brother, Jon, a former senior police officer who is now chief executive of Cardiff council.

What did he learn from his parents? What were the values of his upbringing? “Typical Scots values, certainly of those days – hard work, education, law-abiding. Everything you would expect of growing up in Glasgow in the 1960s. My father left school when he was 14, and his first job was preparing bodies in a mortuary. His father was a butcher. My father’s parents lived in Balornock. My maternal grandfather worked in Govan shipyards as a welder.” From his parents came his sense of right and wrong – “it’s essential in the DNA of a police officer to have a strong sense of morality” – but he has no religious faith and admires those colleagues who do. “There’s so many people doing bad things to each other that I struggle to stick with God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”

When House was 11, his father found work in London and the family moved south. He began to attend private school in Hampstead, where his Glaswegian glottal stops marked him out as exotic. “That was quite difficult,” he recalls. “The school was a step up in the intelligence required from Kelvinside, which was a bit more of a rounded and friendly environment. This felt like more of a hothouse to me. The accent was a real problem when I got there. I remember one teacher, not unkindly, getting me to say, ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ because he wanted to hear the Scottish vowels.”

He was not bullied, he insists, but didn’t relish the attention. “Yeah, the accent went very quickly, because I would say something in class and people genuinely couldn’t understand what I was saying. Hence this accent.”

House speaks in rather nondescript London-ish tones. He considers himself to be Scottish, and in fact Glaswegian, so does he regret losing his original way of talking? “Yes. Absolutely. I’m not proud of losing the accent at all. But that’s what happens when you’re a child and you want to fit in.”

He returned to Scotland in 1976 to study history and English literature at Aberdeen University. He joined the police in 1981, in Sussex, and was a uniformed officer on the streets until 1992. In 1998 he became assistant chief constable of Staffordshire Police, joining the Metropolitan Police three years later and rising to become deputy assistant commissioner before leaving to head up the Strathclyde force in late 2007. He applied for the top job at the Met in 2011 but lost out to Bernard Hogan-Howe. “I was disappointed,” he says. “You don’t put yourself forward for a job like that lightly, and unfortunately you do it in the full glare of publicity, so it was a pretty difficult situation.”

His contract as chief constable of Police Scotland comes to an end in 2016, and he says he will not seek another police job afterwards.

Most police officers prefer to remain on the streets, and most do not move around between different forces in pursuit of their careers, but House clearly has something within him that makes him want to reach the top. He is either unable or unwilling to analyse this trait, but explains that the reason he sought his first promotion – from constable to sergeant – was because he thought the man above him was bad at the job. “I don’t like being told what to do by people that are incompetent and make mistakes and don’t know what they’re doing.”

One might surmise, then, that House has simply believed, throughout his career, that he is the best man for whatever police job comes along. “Crisis of confidence?” he says with a wry smile. “People will tell you that’s not a problem I have.”

Does he mean he is perceived as arrogant? He brushes this aside. “Everyone will look at leaders and say they are arrogant.”

So that’s not something he recognises in himself? “It’s arrogant to say you’re not arrogant. There are times when I’m quite convinced I’m right about things. The police is a disciplined organisation, so if you’re the boss and you want something to happen then that’s what will happen. So you have to be able to check yourself and have people around you who will check you. But yes, there has to be a level of arrogance.”

Asked in the past to describe himself in a single word, House has chosen “relentless”. How is he relentless? In reply, he picks up from his desk a piece of paper. “This here is a record of the more serious crimes in Scotland in the last 24 hours. It’s mainly around violence. Abduction, robbery, serious assaults, firearms incidents, sudden deaths, drug seizures etc. I get that every morning.”

As chief constable of Strathclyde, he chaired a meeting every Monday and Friday, reviewing violent crimes and the police response. “And that’s the pattern we will establish here.” It is not unknown for him to become involved in the detection of specific cases, to make an emotional investment in those about which he feels most strongly. This is what he means by relentless. Violent crime fell by 49 per cent in Strathclyde during his years in charge, and an initiative to tackle gang-fighting has been regarded as a real breakthrough, despite decades of recreational violence on the streets of Glasgow and the west.

Nevertheless, the job of policing the country as a whole is a challenge, to say the least. According to the most recent figures, released in the summer of 2012, crime in Scotland was at a 37-year low, though sexual offences had risen by 10 per cent from the previous year. It will be House’s task to build on this while coping with a budget cut of almost £64 million and ongoing nationwide problems with alcohol and drug abuse – the narcotic kindling that feeds the fires of criminality.

Does he every look in the mirror and ask if himself if he can actually do this job? “Um, no.”

House has to go. He has a meeting in Glenrothes with senior officers. We get into the Land Rover. He turns down Radio 4, punches the postcode into the sat nav and sets off. We pass wind turbines, Longannet power station, the gleaming humps of the Forth Bridge.

I ask why he joined the police. “I wanted something that disciplined. A hierarchy appealed to me. I was never particularly switched on to the private sector and making money.”

What is it about discipline that appeals? “Clarity, I think. People assume that I joined the police to climb the hierarchy, but I didn’t have any concept of promotion. Becoming chief constable was a million miles away from where I was.” He pauses, considers. “I thought it would be exciting, and the idea of it being a sort of secret, closed-off society was appealing. It’s a special job.”

During his time as a student in Aberdeen, he had two direct experiences of the police that he found impressive. The first was their response when he was punched in the face while queueing for chips. “They weren’t soppy – ‘Oh, it must have been terrible for you. We’re so sorry this has happened.’ They were professional and determined to catch the people who did it.”

His second encounter took place while en route to a party; two officers were speaking roughly to a drunk they were about to arrest, but broke off in order to, very politely, give House directions. It was the mix of toughness and civility that he admired, and which he hopes he embodies – the hard man and the community cop.

What was he like as an officer on the beat? “I don’t think I was particularly good. The time I was best was when I did an attachment to the CID and the shop-theft squad in Brighton. I was good at that. But as a street cop? I wasn’t lazy. I was hard-working. But it’s not my natural game. Other cops were better at talking to people than I was. It may be that I was a bit too judgmental. I was a better sergeant than I was a cop, and a better inspector than I was a sergeant.”

Better at being a leader, then? “I think so. But it was also to do with getting older. I was 22 when I joined and not that worldly wise. You need to know a bit more about life, as a cop on the street. I was probably a bit naive and not very robust.”

Not robust? Does he mean physically? In 1985, in Brighton, while chasing two thieves across the roof of a printing works, he fell through and dropped 20 feet to the ground, breaking his right ankle, which is now held together by bolts. “I certainly wasn’t terribly strong, no,” he says. “But I wouldn’t want that to be interpreted as I didn’t get involved. I did.

“I don’t think I was very mature. I was unmarried. When you get into a more permanent relationship and then when you have children, you start to round out as a character and have a more common understanding of humanity, and then you start dealing with people better. I probably wasn’t big on empathy when I joined.”

Empathy, these days, is a stronger suit. Those crime reports arriving on his desk each morning – each stat a tragedy for some poor soul – can provoke in him a visceral response. “I do take a lot of it personally. I care about it, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing the job I’m doing two years after I could have retired. Some of the domestic abuse and rape cases are particularly concerning and upsetting, so I think it’s important that I have that personal involvement.”

Domestic abuse is a crime he feels especially passionate about. Each of Police Scotland’s 14 divisions is to have an investigation unit dedicated to such crimes. Has he personally known anyone affected by it? “I have actually, yes, but obviously I’m not going to talk about that.” Nevertheless, he does, a little. “It’s not a family member. Somebody at work … They came to work with a physical injury – a bruise on their face – and nobody asked them how they got it, until I did. I said, ‘What happened?’ and they told me, and I said, ‘Well, we’ll need to do something about it.’” The case was not prosecuted, but House made sure it was recorded as a crime.

Organised crime is also a red rag for him. “I feel offended by it. Here are people indulging in violence and intimidation to make money. And they’re not generating new cash or creating employment. They’re taking money out of people’s pockets. I find that absolutely infuriating.” His dislike of crime gangs goes back to his roots, his parents and values of honest graft.

He has three and a half years to make a difference to this country and to create a legacy for himself, and is clear about what he wants to achieve. “I want the whole of the service, officers and staff, to live and breathe our focus on keeping people safe. I want to see violence down, I want to see domestic abuse down, and I want people to value Police Scotland as a national asset.”

Those are aims which, surely, we can all endorse. It will be fascinating to see how Stephen House goes about tackling them.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss