Chris Marshall: Stephen House was on a hiding to nothing

Sir Stephen House’s announcement last week that he is to step down as chief constable of Police Scotland marked the end of an era in Scottish policing.
Much of what House did well has been obscured by controversies. Picture: PAMuch of what House did well has been obscured by controversies. Picture: PA
Much of what House did well has been obscured by controversies. Picture: PA

It’s an era which has seen recorded crime fall to a 40-year low, an era in which a no-nonsense approach to crime has made our streets, statistically-speaking at least, safer.

Yet Sir Stephen’s legacy is a troubled one.

Despite the undoubted successes, failings during his tenure have undermined faith in the police – perhaps the most serious accusation which can be levelled at any chief constable.

First the positives, though.

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As chief constable of Strathclyde Police and then the national force, Sir Stephen embarked on an aggressive brand of zero tolerance policing that even his critics had to concede paid dividends.

When politicians were lining up to aim a kick at the chief last week on the day of his resignation, a largely ignored statement by Scottish Women’s Aid said Sir Stephen had left Scotland’s policing of domestic abuse at a standard “unmatched anywhere” in the world.

And the chief constable should also be congratulated for the establishment of Police Scotland’s National Child Abuse Investigation Unit, which gives a clear indication to victims that the police are taking them seriously.

And yet so much of what Sir Stephen did well has been obscured by controversies such as armed policing and stop-search.

A more savvy chief would have conceded defeat when things got political, but Sir Stephen repeatedly dug his heels in.

Among those paying the most fulsome tributes to Sir Stephen last week was Vic Emery, the beleaguered chair of the Scottish Police Authority who is also stepping aside.

Messrs House and Emery clearly shared a good working relationship and a personal warmth for one another, which only makes it easier for critics of the SPA to accuse it of subservience to the police force it is there to scrutinise.

There is now an opportunity for a new broom at both Police Scotland and the SPA.

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The police force does not need root and branch reform, as has been suggested, but a leadership focused on rebuilding public confidence.

It can be aided in that by a strong watchdog with a chair willing to ask questions and pick a fight when needed.

As the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents has noted, the first chief constable of Scotland’s single police force was probably always on a hiding to nothing.

The next holder of the role, however, has to hit the ground running.