Strengths and weaknesses of Police Scotland chief

HE IS, depending on who you ask, either a dedicated copper with a righteous anger on behalf of victims, or a ruthlessly ambitious careerist driven by a thirst for power. To those who know Sir Stephen House, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The chief constable of Police Scotland has enjoyed a quite remarkable career, skipping up through the ranks, using his considerable political talents to build a substantial power-base – and playing a key role in creating the national police force which he now heads.

But last week, as Police Scotland came under greater pressure over the stopping and searching of children, House’s authority looked genuinely shaky for the first time.

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A storm has been brewing above Police Scotland for some months. When it emerged last year that officers were being routinely armed while on patrol, there was outcry from politicians and public alike. This row came on top of concerns about the closure of local offices and control rooms.

These controversies, however, have been overshadowed by concerns about the number of Scots – including under-12s – being searched by officers. And, on Thursday, House was left in no doubt by MSPs that the force had got things badly wrong.

Appearing in front of Holyrood’s justice committee on Thursday, the chief constable accepted that there had been a “huge” communication problem between Police Scotland and the public, and conceded that rank-and-file officers had not been told clearly what was expected of them when it came to searching members of the public.

The row over stopping and searching reached boiling point earlier this month when the BBC obtained figures which showed that 356 children under the age of 12 had been subject to the procedure, despite a pledge to MSPs from Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson that the “indefensible” practice would be scrapped. Police Scotland later revised these figures, claiming that 289, then 130, then 112, then just 18 under-12s had been stopped and searched.

The release of inaccurate figures gave MSPs at Thursday’s committee meeting an opportunity to flex their muscles. Labour’s Elaine Murray asked: “If a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered as unreliable, would they not?”

While the chief constable admitted that officers would be interested in why a story was changing, he remained adamant that he was there to provide a valid explanation. What’s more, he added, the row over the issue had been driven by the media and politicians rather than the public.

In that case, the independent MSP John Finnie asked, wasn’t part of the problem that news about the good work of Police Scotland was being lost because he had become the story?

House was quite clear: he’d much rather not be on the front pages of national newspapers but that would not deflect him from the fact that his officers and staff were doing a fantastic job and crime was falling.

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Those who know the chief constable best were hardly surprised by his bullish attitude. House is – in the words of one colleague – “the most ambitious, confident man” he has ever met. His rise to the top appears to bear this analysis out.

After joining Sussex Police in 1981, at the age of 24, he remained a uniformed officer while moving through the ranks before, in 1994, moving to West Yorkshire Police as a superintendent in the performance unit. Having moved into management, House had a brief spell as the divisional commander in Bradford before being appointed assistant chief constable of Staffordshire Police in 1998.

One friend said: “There can be a lot of resentment among rank and file officers about senior cops who are fast-tracked into management, but Stephen has a more credible claim than most to a proper grounding in real policing.

“He’s been at the sharp end, out on the streets, and he knows how hard the job can be. People might assume he’s a pen-pusher but he’s a proper cop.”

Just as House’s credentials as a frontline officer are well documented, the qualities which marked him out as different to the colleagues with whom he went through basic training are clear.

The friend said: “Yes, he’s a politician and I suppose that’s always been part of him. He thinks strategically and knows how important it is to build good relationships with powerful people.

“You only have to look at his part in the creation of the single police force to see that.”

House’s pro-active role in the establishment of Police Scotland is not widely known.

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He joined Strathclyde Police in 2007 as chief constable, replacing Sir Willie Rae, and brought to that force a renewed focus on tackling violent crime. House was – and remains – especially concerned about domestic violence and gang culture and, under his leadership at Strathclyde, the policing of both were reformed.

House’s appointment in the year that the SNP first came to power at Holyrood meant he was dealing with a Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who was new to power.

One civil servant who observed that relationship at close quarters said House was the dominant character.

“What you have to bear in mind is that, by the time he had been appointed chief constable at Strathclyde, Stephen had spent more than a decade in very senior positions in different police forces. That required a lot of political nous and he had the advantage over Kenny of having real experience of management of a heavy-duty service.

“You always felt that Kenny was a little in awe of Stephen.”

Certainly, colleagues of Mac­Askill recall House taking a significant role in the creation of the new force.

One SNP MSP explained: “The creation of a single police force was, first and foremost, about saving money. Budgets were already being cut, and all of us, no matter which party we were in, were promising more cops on the street and better detection rates. It was pretty clear that bringing the existing eight regional forces together was a sensible move.

“As soon as it became clear that was the direction of travel, then Stephen House was at the front of the queue to offer guidance.”

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Perhaps one clue to House’s political savvy came when he appointed as his press adviser Rob Shorthouse, who had ­previously worked for First Minister Jack McConnell ­
(and went on to become director of communications for Better Together during the independence referendum campaign).

A source who was involved in the groundwork for the new streamlined force said: “He didn’t hire Rob to answer calls about break-ins from evening newspapers, he hired him to help him become the head of the new force. Fair enough – he’s an ambitious guy. You can’t blame him for trying to make sure his interests were promoted.”

That same source points out, however, that even when it became clear Police Scotland was to become a reality, House had his eye on a bigger prize. He may have been established as favourite to head the new force but when Sir Paul Stephenson resigned as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, House pitched, unsuccessfully, to become his replacement.

Having lost out to Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe in that contest, House had to content himself with being appointed head of Police Scotland, the second largest force, after the Met, in the UK.

And, say Scottish Government sources, he continued to be the dominant figure in his relationship with the justice secretary. Furthermore, House enjoyed the full confidence – and useful disinterest – of the then First Minister Alex ­Salmond.

An SNP source explained: “Alex was very much of the view that the police have a job to do and he should let them get on and do it. That’s fair enough, but it meant that he wasn’t as fully aware of what the new force was up to as he might be.”

Salmond’s successor, Nicola Sturgeon, however, takes a different approach.

A source close to the First Minister said: “Alex was happy to just let him get on with things without much involvement, but Nicola takes more of an interest. She is more likely to ask philosophical questions about what sort of policing we want.

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“It’s hardly surprising. Nicola comes from a legal background and has a sharp interest in civil liberties and so she is naturally more concerned about how Police Scotland operates.”

Government insiders, while conceding that Sturgeon expects greater openness and accountability from House than her predecessor might have, insist the relationship between the First Minister and the chief constable is a good one.

A source said: “They get on very well. There is definitely mutual respect and the First Minister is absolutely supportive of Sir Stephen. His work on domestic violence, for example, is something that Nicola feels very strongly about.

“Where things differ from his relationship with Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill is that Nicola is the sort of politician who likes detail; she likes precision.

“It’s not a lads together relationship. It’s a professional, respectful one.”

Another source close to the First Minister insisted that the problems which have flared up are part and parcel of the process of amalgamating the country’s regional forces.

The insider said: “Some of the things that have been controversial were already happening. It’s just that we didn’t notice. Take armed police. That was already going on in Highland, but until it became something that was happening in the national force, it wasn’t a big issue.

“Sir Stephen was always going to have to deal with anomalies and problems created by the formation of the new force. It would have been amazing if he hadn’t, given the scale of the project.”

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And, added the source, House also faces a degree of scrutiny that no senior Scottish policeman ever has.

“Nobody has ever had their authority challenged or tested like this because nobody has ever had this degree of authority before. When he was head of the Strathclyde force, Sir Stephen had a big job but this is on an entirely different scale and what we’re seeing now is part of that transition process.

“Sir Stephen has the privilege of being the first officer to hold this post but he also has the downside of that to deal with – the scrutiny and the tough questions.”

Those tough questions kept coming as House faced the Justice Committee but he remained steadfast in his position that the vast majority of Scots support his officers and approve of the way in which they carry out their duties.

This may be so but House can expect a new culture in which his decisions are scrutinised more closely. He can expect his authority to be challenged in a manner that he has not previously experienced.

The Scottish Police Federation has raised concerns that serving officers are under the impression that they are obliged to meet targets for the number of members of the public they search (something denied by House), while the Scottish Police Authority – previously criticised as a toothless watchdog – has announced it expects to be more closely involved in police decision making, rather than finding out “after the event”.

House has enjoyed a great deal of freedom to direct Police Scotland as he chooses, without many questions asked, for two years. Those days are over.

As one senior SNP figure put it: “Sir Stephen wanted the single police force, he wanted to head it and to have that authority.

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“He got what he wanted and now he has the scrutiny that comes with that.”