STEPHEN House was addressing a conference recently on the subject of Scotland’s new chiegnational police force.
There were some people, he said, who thought he wanted to control everything the police did – to the point where a constable in the Borders couldn’t sneeze without him knowing about it. “But that would be the insane dream of some mad megalomaniac, and I may be many things,” he declared, “but I’m definitely not mad”.
The wry, slightly menacing humour of Scotland’s Chief Constable is said to be typical of a man who, in a few short weeks, will become the most powerful policeman in the land. On 1 April, Scotland’s eight forces are to be merged into one national service. House, who for the past five years has been Chief Constable of Strathclyde, will be at the helm.
For the SNP ministers who ordered the change, the reform is a key element of plans to try to cut back on the cost of public service delivery at a time when cash is scarce. For the watching public, the hope is that, on the night of 31 March this year, nobody will notice a thing, bar a change in the name-badges on police lapels.
Behind the scenes, however, the jokes are wearing thin. “We’re exasperated,” declares SNP MSP Christine Grahame, the convener of Holyrood’s justice committee, which has been tasked with monitoring the change. House is on record as saying he thinks the terms of the new legislation already need to be changed. He and the man he is reporting to – the head of the Scottish Police Authority, Vic Emery – appear to be engaged in a mano-a-mano arm-wrestling match over where their responsibilities begin and end. It allowed Labour MSP Jenny Marra to accuse Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill last week of having created a “beast with two heads” from the thicket of reform.
Members of the public will be forgiven for not being gripped by a bureaucratic rearranging of the chairs that appears to be drawn straight from the police power wrangles in the HBO series The Wire. But the stakes are high. The new structure will, after all, decide the future of the country’s anti-crime effort and whether one of the key pillars of the SNP’s success story over the past five years – the claim to have cut crime levels to a 30-year low – will remain standing. Will the reform really work? Will it cut crime? Or is Scotland’s police force set to make itself one big April Fool?
The new plans were unveiled by MacAskill last year. Change is overdue, say some officials within St Andrew’s House (the Scottish Government headquarters), who have long been impatient with the way Scotland’s chief constables have each run their own patch.
With cutbacks imposed across the public sector, the aim is now to ensure that a new police service for Scotland gets rid of the inefficiencies and duplications of eight separate organisations, and runs to clearly set national plans.
The old system – under which chief constables were overseen by local government police authorities in each region – will be swept away. From April, the national Chief Constable “has direction and control” of the entire country, from Annan to Lerwick.
The Scottish Policy Authority – a quango of ministerial appointees to which House is accountable – is to “maintain” the service. Ministers set the budgets and can direct the authority in parliament (to, for example, keep police numbers up). But the authority is in charge of the cash, paying staff and signing contracts.
House has already begun pulling operational plans together.
There will be a new Trunk Roads Patrol Unit, taking a national oversight of accident hotspots. There will be one specialist Crime Directorate dealing with homicides, meaning Taggart and Rebus will be in the same office; one national number (101) to dial for the nearest police station; and a national drive to boost the number of rape convictions.
Meanwhile, to try to counter claims that localism is being lost, the force will order a local policing plan for every council ward in Scotland. And the energetic House can be expected to bring his own brand of punchy, politically astute leadership to the national picture. One supportive Glasgow councillor notes the Chief’s tactic of “terrifying” new recruits, who are told in no uncertain terms that any evidence of racism, sexism or bigotry means they will be out of the door. “He tells them that they should treat people, even criminals, like they’d treat their own family,” says the councillor.
House is, say both admirers and critics, not a man who is backwards in coming forwards, and has shown a sharp eye for political pole-climbing. But even if he weren’t, those within the Scottish Police Authority insist all the power and influence he wields needs a check.
So last year, MacAskill appointed the equally formidable Emery – who as managing director of BAE Systems built warships on the Clyde – to run the authority. The newly created SPA is now in what Alex Salmond politely calls “creative tension” with Police Scotland. And Emery has parked his bus right on what House appears to think is his turf.
The new law declares, says the SPA, that it should have strategic control over “corporate” issues, such as human resources and finance. In other words, the SPA gets to control the money and the people. For them, such control is essential.
“We want to make sure we are not left in a position where we are giving somebody a chequebook and hoping that all will go well and then end up with a major problem in a year’s time,” says one figure.
This will ensure there can be no laxity with the money. At the same time, the authority will provide a “buffer” between the police and ministers, taking the responsibility for overall strategy and allowing House to get on with the day-to-day job. But, argue others, it leaves House’s room for decision-making greatly reduced.
Callum Steele, of the Scottish Police Federation, notes: “The power over day-to-day spending decisions is vital. “If the Chief Constable decides that he wants to move a number of resources from Glasgow to Lerwick, for example, the cost of doing that would be quite significant. If the authority says it won’t meet that cost then that has an impact on the ability of the Chief Constable to deliver the policy he has decided is appropriate.” House has already made his displeasure well known – telling MSPs late last year that it was a “gobsmacking major problem” to discover he wouldn’t get the control of support staff he had been used to.
But this, say less friendly councillors in Glasgow (and sources within the SPA), is an example of an old-style police emperor suddenly discovering that things aren’t going to go all his own way.
Former councillor Christopher Mason notes: “House always made it very plain when he was Chief Constable of Strathclyde that he didn’t like views that did not accord with his own. He has found in Emery a chairman who clearly has a mind of his own. He thought the Scottish Police Authority would interpret its powers in the same way that the Strathclyde Police Authority would and he was gobsmacked to find they weren’t going to do so.”
The answer, for now, appears to be a compromise. House and Emery are to meet on Friday, when it is expected they will agree a deal under which both will get to employ directors of finance, human resources and corporate affairs, each with their allotted roles.
A Police Scotland spokeswoman says the plan “represents progress towards getting a working agreement in place to allow us to focus on the task of delivering a single national policing service for 1 April.” It means that the row can be left to one side while the new service gets up and running.
But the deal has prompted accusations from MSPs of “empire building”, running in diametric opposition to the aim of streamlining the service.
Labour MSP and former director-general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency Graeme Pearson declares: “We are creating two executive arms at the same time as cutting hundreds of support staff jobs. What we don’t need are additional executives. That was the argument for moving to a single police force in the first place.”
What’s more, the deal looks only to have parked the dispute. House can be expected to return to it once the new system is up and running. And, if it stays as it is, police officers see problems ahead.
Steele, of the Police Federation, asks who will guard the guardians, in the form of the SPA. “If the power [to spend money] lies with the SPA, there is nobody that has a defined role to hold the authority to account. For me that is a massive weakness in the way the bill was drafted.” And, warns Pearson, a too-powerful SPA, appointed by ministers, could leave the system open to the charge that it is politically motivated.
Yet, such arguments, SPA chiefs counter, are the product of vested interests trying to pick holes in reforms that look set to leave the old ways of doing things in tatters. They will just have to get used to a new way of working, and a new culture of policing.
Over at St Andrew’s House, MacAskill is said to be frustrated that all good news about the reforms is being lost. Other police sources put it more bluntly, saying the civil servants who drafted the legislation, and created the ingredients for the turf war, are being blamed.
“They’ve left him with a shit-storm not of his own making,” says one. In the short term, both sides are likely to knuckle down and ensure the new services comes on stream this spring. But the tension is likely to get even more creative after that. For people at home, and the politicians in Edinburgh, they had better hope the tumult of reform doesn’t make their streets any less safe. «