Brian Wilson: House is not in order over lobbying

Chief Constable’s role as attack-dog against a senior legal figure smacked of arrogance and orchestration, writes Brian Wilson

Chief Constable Sir Stephen House should leave the rhetoric to the politicians. Picture: Robert Perry

I never fancied the idea of a single, Scotland-wide police force and I fancy it a lot less having read Sir Stephen House’s over-zealous recent epistle to The Scotsman in response to concerns expressed by Lord McCluskey on the issue of corroboration.

At one level, it is the wider process of centralisation that is the problem. As one Nationalist guru said recently: “Scotland is our localism.” That rationale leads to so much decision-making, funding and accountability – not least for the police – being sucked towards Edinburgh, under tight political management.

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But when it comes to the justice system, there are particular reasons for being wary of reforms that blow away established safeguards and replace them with a system that is much closer to political control.

There used to be three legs to Scotland’s police stool – “the trilogy” as it was known. Central government was the funder, chief constables ran operations and were accountable to police authorities, made up of elected councillors. The creation of a national police force kicked away one leg and the two that remain now seem interlocked.

My previous understanding of the constitutional relationship between parliament and police was that elected legislators made the law and the police enforced it. In the New Scotland, it seems, such demarcations have been sidelined. I suppose we have to get used to the idea of chief constable as cheer-leader for the minister who appointed him.

When ministers and police speak for each other, a line has been crossed. Throw in a highly-politicised civil service and the taking in-house of the Crown Office and we are moving dangerously close to a corporate justice system under ministerial control. That may be in the spirit of Nationalism, but it is not in the tradition of Scotland and we should be alert to the fundamental seriousness of what is going on. The emergence of Chief Constable House as public lobbyist for abolishing the corroboration principle did nothing to diminish these concerns. The fact that the police want rid of corroboration does not mean that the rest of us should. It is not yet an offence to point this out, nor does it merit the dismissive put-down administered to Lord McCluskey for doing so.

I am reminded of a classic rejoinder from the late Edward Heath when hanging was last debated in the House of Commons. In response to an eager right-wing Tory who had volunteered to act as hangman, Heath said that he was missing the real question – which was whether he was prepared to be hanged “by mistake”.

The arguments for and against the Scottish legal principle of corroboration are complex and difficult. At its root, is the honourable philosophical belief that it is more important to avoid hangings by mistake than to sometimes risk the guilty going free. That is not a principle which should be surrendered lightly, or at the behest of a chief constable impatient for results.

It is probable that more convictions would be secured without corroboration; the question is whether this would be at the expense of justice in some of these cases. To sneer at this, as House did, as “the strength of the legal establishment drowning out the voice of victims” is patronising and misleading. We are all potential victims.

But perhaps more worryingly, his role as attack-dog against a senior legal figure who dared question what ministers are proposing smacked of arrogance and orchestration. Ostensibly, House intervened in defence of his force’s honour due to Lord McCluskey’s unremarkable assertion that “the police are not saints” – a view confirmed through long experience from the vantage point of the bench.

House seemed to be looking for a fight to pick. He himself conceded: “A small number of officers let us all down, but the huge majority deserve support.” Lord McCluskey wrote: “Most police do an honest, competent job; but the courts are not there to support the police.” There does not seem much difference on which the Chief Constable could or should have built the charge of an “ill-judged, unjust, outdated” affront.

House’s assertion that “the interests of policing and public confidence are ill-served by (Lord McCluskey’s) comments” was equally over-blown. People’s views of the police are formed by experience, rather than the worldly comments of a retired High Court judge, however distinguished.

The Chief Constable should concentrate on addressing the realities of public perception and leave the rhetoric to the politicians. He could perhaps start by asking himself about the effect on his force’s image of enforcing the absurd Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds Act, for which he was also an eager advocate. A lot more damaging than anything Lord McCluskey said, I think!

The case for a single Scottish police force was built on operational arguments. Particularly where organised crime and major investigations are involved, there is no sense in geographical divisions of responsibility. There was also potential for avoiding duplication and, therefore, waste of scarce resources. So far, all so good – but the operational benefits were also used as a front for political centralisation.

The creation of a single force has reduced accountability and concentrated too much power in a coterie of inter-linked hands. The safety valve of relatively local police authorities has been lost. Instead, the veneer of accountability is vested in a minister and an unelected quango, which (like the Chief Constable) has been appointed by the same minister.

It is a dangerously centralised system, with important checks and balances removed. As Labour’s spokesman, Graeme Pearson, himself a former senior police officer, has repeatedly pointed out, it is also seriously deficient in transparency. Like all dutiful quangos, the Scottish Police Authority has been invisible in its supposed role as guardian of the public interest.

Equally unsurprisingly, the promised savings from this major change in the way Scotland is policed will never happen. Last month, the Auditor General for Scotland produced a damning report which found that the SPA and Police Scotland have no financial strategy for how cuts will be achieved beyond the current financial year. Why should they? The whole thing was thrown together in 18 months to fit a political agenda.

The closure of police stations and drastic cuts in civilian staff with police officers “back-filling” their roles can only go so far. But who is going to blow the whistle on any of this when they are all part of the same set-up, without any meaningful channels of challenge or complaint? Ranks simply close around the mantra of Police Scotland being a great success story.

We need more questioning of these developments, rather than less. Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill and his Chief Constable singing from the same song-sheet is one form of corroboration that Scotland’s justice system could well do without.