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Several forces were doing right thing. Now country has it right

THERE has been a new word bouncing around Scottish policing this last year or so:

NEW OFFICE: Sir Stephen House, now based in Stirling, has never worked harder than in his current role in charge of national force.  Picture: Steve Cox
NEW OFFICE: Sir Stephen House, now based in Stirling, has never worked harder than in his current role in charge of national force. Picture: Steve Cox

Strathclydisation. It annoys Sir Stephen House, the first chief constable for the whole country. It annoys him a lot.

"It may be difficult for some people to understand," he says in an interview marking his first year in charge of Police Scotland, "but the minute you take a job like this, you take huge ownership for the whole country."

There have been whispers from Edinburgh, disgruntled officers who feel they are having to impose Strathclyde tactics on domestic abuse, or prostitution, or stop and search.

There have been more than whispers from the north-east or Dumfriesshire about plans to close control rooms.

Politicians, Labour and Tory, who backed a single force, as well as Liberal Democrats, who always opposed it, have started to make noises about big Glasgow size 10 boots trampling on local policing.

Sir Stephen is clearly irritated by this rhetoric. Is it mischief-making by politicians? "I couldn't call it mischief-making," he says, "I think people are seeking to prove their point. And not always giving us a fair hearing, but that is inevitable. They will rearrange the facts to suit their needs. We understand that."

The chief constable is in his office in Stirling, a functional 1970s block in the city's leafy west. Stirling beats Glasgow as a base, he reckons. "Even the weather is better," he says.

Sir Stephen's pitch is simple: that he has taken the best practice from every force, and from elsewhere too, and made it national. There is no "Strathclydisation", he insists. But some of the tactics he pioneered at Strathclyde, often brought from his service in England, have been rolled out across the country. And, he says, they are delivering results.

The chief constable flips through his crime updates, weekly year-to-date numbers on all the horrors that take place in Scotland, neatly packaged in polypockets. He stops at domestic abuse.

The number of incidents that the police are called to across the country - typically rows between partners that result in a 999 call - is roughly the same as it was a year ago. The number of crimes - actual domestic assaults or rapes that are subject to proper criminal investigation as a result of such incidents - are up a quarter.

But this Scotland-wide snapshot conceals the most dramatic single effect of national policing.

Because, according to the early performance measures in Sir Stephen's weekly log, in Glasgow the number of crimes stemming from domestic abuse incidents are down, by 8%, In Edinburgh they are up, by 138%.

"It is not about figures," Sir Stephen said. "These policies are making a huge difference to the victims of domestic abuse, who now know that we are going to do something about it and take their attackers to court.

"This is the best policy as far as we are concerned. It wasn't just a Strathclyde policy. The policy in Central Scotland Police was the same. We haven't seen much change in their figures. Same with Grampian, not a massive change.

"Actually a number of forces were doing the right thing. Now the whole country has got the policy right."

So is this "Strathclydisation?" "I brought the domestic abuse policy to Strathclyde," said Sir Stephen. "And I came to Strathclyde from the Met. You might as well say that Strathclyde was taken over by the Met. In fact, I developed that model of domestic abuse policing in Staffordshire, which is where I was before the Met. You might as well say that as far as domestic abuse is concerned we are turning Scotland into Staffordshire. The whole thing becomes absurd.

"What am I going to do? Say I know the best way to do something but I am not going to adopt it because I don't want to upset anyone? That would be ridiculous."

The biggest claims of "Strathclydisation" came last summer. Police Scotland raided a series of saunas in Edinburgh. Was Glasgow's traditional lack of tolerance of prostitution was being imposed on the capital? Licensing policy, Sir Stephen said, was a matter for the city. "What we do, regardless of their policy, is keep women who work in saunas safe," he said. "What we did during that operation was based on criminal warrants. There would be public outcry if we said we know there is criminality going on in there and the Crown have got warrants but we are not going to go inside and execute them because that does not fit with our understanding of the policy. That would be a disciplinary matter, a dereliction of duty."

What about the resulting bad PR? "We should have explained that at the time and I blame myself for not doing so," the chief constable says. Police Scotland, Sir Stephen argues, could have been better at communicating, whether it was more community police mobilised in Edinburgh or investment in the north. The old L&B also had best practice that has gone national, he insists: Police Scotland has "Lothianised" its complaints procedures.

So how has the year gone? "If I had been offered it at the start, I would have taken it," he says. "I have worked harder than I have ever worked. It has probably been consistently my most difficult year in the service but that is not much of a surprise.

"It is a huge thing that we have achieved. We have established a national police force fit for a Western democracy.

"I am very proud with the work police officers and staff have done. I see a lot of positives and some things we could have done better. There are some areas where we have been a bit clumsy but we are fixing those. We had to take some difficult decisions, I don't apologise for them. But change is difficult, and it's more difficult when done with a falling budget in a short space of time, but I think we have navigated it well."

That force was put together quickly. During planning for the national structure, Sir Stephen's deputy Neil Richardson went to see how similar plans were progressing in The Netherlands. "The Dutch are still working on it. We have done it," the chief says.

Will the chief constable, looking more relaxed than for weeks, stay on as the hard work of transition ends?

"I don't think there is anything more glamorous than running a national police service, is there?" he says. "My contract ends in October 2016. My expectation is that I shall be here until at least then."

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