Sir Stephen House – a brief note

As I write, the press has just revealed that the departing chief constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, is to receive a £500,000 ‘pay off’ and a pension of £100,000 a year. Parts of the media and some of those of my unionist persuasion who criticise him are outraged by this. I am not.

You see, the man’s getting his pension and associated lump sum (not ‘pay off’) not for his performance of the last three of four years but as deferred salary – because that’s what a pension is – for his forty-odd years’ service in a number of police forces throughout the UK, which means incidentally that a not insignificant part of his pension is funded by taxpayers and council tax payers in England. I have no problem with any of this.

My objections are to what has led to his early departure and can be grouped into three related issues.

First and foremost, there is the way the nine police forces of Scotland have been amalgamated. There would be challenges in any such reorganisation but this one has shown a number of outward symptoms of being dysfunctional. Most recently, and probably the immediate cause of Sir Stephen’s departure, was the dreadful incident of the couple who died when their car left the M9 and lay undiscovered for three days despite a member of the public alerting the police to the accident. The immediate and root causes of the delay have yet, I understand, to be confirmed. But there is suspicion about the role of a diminished number of police contact centres across the country and associated staff shortages.

Even prior to that immediate cause of his departure, if that’s what it is, a whole series of concerns had been rumbling around, from the appearance of armed police on the streets of Inverness (Inverness, for heaven’s sake) through the number of stop and searches the force carry out (supposedly more than the Met in London), to the trundling around the country at some expense of police horses to put in appearances at various public events, as if everything that might have the remotest public order implications in Aberdeen or Dumfries were a key Rangers-Celtic match.

In short, much of this might be described as the Strathclyde-ification of policing in Scotland, the old force that covered 50% of the country’s population and of which Sir Stephen was the chief constable. It might have made managerial sense to the senior officers of the new force but it betrayed a stark lack of sensitivity to local needs.

Second, and I suspect that the Strathclyde-ification I refer to was a symptom of this, the resignation tells a tale of police culture that is endemic amongst at least some senior officers throughout the UK. It is a culture I saw as a local authority officer for many years. A culture of arrogance in which the necessary independence of the chief constable becomes confused with a belief that they cannot be wrong, because that would show weakness, wouldn’t it? The concept of humility as an essential part of good leadership has yet to catch up with many senior police officers. Sadly for Scotland, this amateur observer detects more sensitivity and understanding of this in some (some) forces south of the border.

Thirdly and finally there is of course the political dimension to this. There is the fact that the SNP government thought it necessary to promote a single national police force. Yes, they needed to save money, and would have had to do so even more in a separate Scotland. But they made the choice to do part of it this way and they bear ultimate responsibility for what has happened. They created the Scottish Police Authority which is supposed to oversee the operation of the force, replacing the nine former authorities/joint boards made up of elected councillors. The SPA seems to be particularly ineffective and supine in carrying out its role. To many, the single national police force seems yet another example of the SNP’s tendency to centralise and control without building in necessary checks and balances.

This note started with a (sort of) defence of Sir Stephen’s pension rights. It doesn’t pretend to be a full analysis of the problems of Police Scotland, nor do I have the capability to do that. But the operational and political issues around the force are much more important than a retiring public servant’s pension.

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