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Pugnacious House defends pay package and won't renegotiate

NOBODY could accuse Police Scotland Chief Constable Stephen House of demanding luxury premises.

His headquarters - an ugly slab of concrete in the middle of Stirling - resembles the sort of place East Germans used to be asked to attend to help the Stasi with their enquiries.

House's office itself looks like it has not been spruced up since before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On April 1, it will be 12 months since the country's old territorial constabularies were wound up and replaced with a single force in order to make savings to the public purse.

In a combative interview, House, Chief Constable of Strathclyde before taking the top job in Scottish policing, is keen to talk about what he believes are the achievements of the past year.

"We had a budget challenge. We've faced the budget challenge," he says.

The Glasgow-born chief believes the force has revolutionised the way domestic abuse and rape cases are handled and is ready for the Commonwealth Games, adding: "I'm happy with where we are.

"I think Scotland is still getting used to the idea of having a single national police service. It's still like trying on a new jacket, starting to get a bit comfortable within it in some places, bit of a rub in other places."

He also cites the Clutha tragedy, in which a police helicopter crashed into a Glasgow bar, killing nine people, as his "low point".

However, the past 12 months were marked by a row between Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority - set up to oversee the new force - on the roles of both bodies.

House says there were "inevitable growing pains and teething problems", repeats there was no "turf war" and says he gets on "very well" with the SPA and its chair, Vic Emery.

The first year of Police Scotland has also raised questions about the performance of the new force and whether savings have been found in the right place.

Hundreds of civilian posts have been axed, but as the Sunday Herald revealed last week, officers who joined the service before 1994 still pocket a special "housing allowance" that helps them with their mortgage.

House, who earns over £208,000 a year, is one of many beneficiaries of a scheme that has cost the taxpayer £10.8 million since last April. Does he believe there is a perception problem with these payments for senior officers?

"I can understand that. But I have to say to you, it's been part of my terms and conditions since 1981 ... It's the same for every single officer who joined before 1994."

Asked whether it is fair that he gets special help with his mortgage while police staff lose their jobs, House says: "You call it that, 'special help with your mortgage', but it's just another line in the pay packet. I don't see it like that ... They [police staff] took the job that they took under terms and conditions. They have taken voluntary redundancy under very clear terms and conditions. Each person deals with life in their own way."

Is there a case for revisiting the allowance? "My view is that I took the package as offered to me, and I'm not about to renegotiate it."

One of House's signature policies at Strathclyde was to step up the use of "stop and search", an approach that has since been rolled out nationally.

However, former officers told this newspaper that the 500,000 or so recorded stop searches were misleading.

They said that under pressure to keep their numbers up, police were recording bogus stop searches that were never carried out. House responds: "You should go back to your unnamed sources and tell them that if they are caught they'll get sacked."

Do the allegations concern him? "Of course it concerns me," he says.

House says the "official" target in this area is for 15% of stop searches to be "positive", which means finding drugs, stolen goods or a weapon.

However, a leaked PowerPoint presentation in his name suggested the target was closer to 25% than 15%.

Asked about this discrepancy, the chief constable does not appear to welcome the question: "You are going to take this as being rude and aggressive, it's not meant to be, but you pay more attention to my PowerPoints than I do, mate, because I could not tell you what PowerPoint that was."

Was it news to him? "I don't remember it."

He insists the force gets "precious few complaints" about stop and search. I suggest, though, there wouldn't be anyone to complain if some are being made up. "Well, yeah, some of them are being made up. You're not suggesting the majority are."

It has also been alleged that some violent crimes are being classified wrongly by officers in order to massage the overall figures. For instance, it is claimed that serious assault, which is a violent crime, is being recorded as common assault, which is not.

House says he agrees with the police inspectorate that the definition of serious assault should be "updated", and reveals the issue is being discussed with the Scottish Government: "We are looking at doing that. The downside of doing it, of course, is it will throw a loop into the crime figures for years to come."

Another criticism House has faced is the single force's approach to Edinburgh's "saunas", better known as brothels. From the mid-1980s, the local authority licensed saunas and, together with the former Lothian and Borders force, effectively turned a blind eye to the sex for sale inside.

However, Police Scotland officers raided the saunas last year and various people were charged with brothel-keeping, leading to suggestions that the Strathclyde zero-tolerance ethos was being imposed on the capital.

House says: "I don't have a personal view on the sauna situation in Edinburgh, never did have. The idea that we were bringing a policy from Glasgow to Edinburgh was, in my view, nonsense. It just wasn't the case."

If sauna owners have been largely left alone since the 1980s, can he see why charging people now with brothel-keeping looks like a change of policy?

"I probably can see that, but I have to go back to the basics," he says. "We were operating on the back of a multi-agency operation, when we went through the doors council staff were with us, fire and rescue staff were with us, health and safety were with us."

He explains: "I am a bit confused about what observers expected us to do.

"We get evidence that there are women being used for the purposes of sex, perhaps been trafficked into the country for that purpose, that there is widespread drug abuse, that there is heavy engagement by organised crime, that there is stolen goods on the premises. What are we supposed to do? … When officers go through the door and find clear evidence of sexual intercourse going on in front of them, literally as they open the door, I don't know that they felt they had much option."

The mood lightens when a subject not within his brief is raised - independence. Asked if he knows how he will vote in September, House laughs: "I have decided how I'm going to vote."

He jokes: "I'll even tell you how I'm going to vote if you tell me who your source is."

The chief constable does not elaborate on his voting intentions.

House has a constructive relationship with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, describing him as "an easy chap to like" who knows the boundaries.

However, the interview takes an interesting turn when he is asked about the decision that has defined MacAskill's term in office more than any other.

Did he agree with the Justice Secretary's decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?"It's his decision to take," he says, firmly.

But did you agree with him? "You've got the first thing I'd really rather not comment on," he says, squirming slightly.

This sounds like cop code for something, so I pose the question for a third time. "Did I disagree with it?" he replies, and pauses. "I think that was one of those where I decided I'm not going to be jumping into either side."

House's contract ends in October 2016, with an option to extend it for another year. 
As chief, he has helped deliver a massive shake-up to policing and left a lasting footprint. However, a longer period of time will be needed to assess whether Police Scotland, and his leadership, have been a force for good.

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