Robbie Dinwoodie visits Tulliallan Castle to ask Chief Constable Stephen House of Police Scotland what we can expect after midnight on Sunday when Scotland’s new single force takes control. The impact on the public, the savings, the improvements and the bureaucratic battles are all discussed openly by our new top cop

Is a single police force for Scotland a good idea and is it really going to work?

I arrived in (Scotland in) November 2007 and within a year I was being asked if it was feasible. I have been consistent in saying it’s feasible but it was only in the last three years that I said I thought it was something we should do. That was a relatively lone voice. The Superintendents’ Association has always said it’s what we should do.

Everybody else was pretty much against it including the SNP who were not particularly in favour of it initially. It becomes increasingly attractive in times of financial constraints. I think that's effectively the thing that has pushed the Government.

I remember Kenny MacAskill saying sensibly, as usual, that if you were designing Scottish policing from the ground up you would never design it with eight police forces, one of which covered half the country and the other seven of which covered the other half of the country. You would design it more logically than that. Well, this the opportunity to go back to a blank page and I think, once you start doing that work, a single force becomes the obvious solution.

What's been really noticeable in the last couple of months is the number of police officers I have spoken to who have said, once you start planning for this it becomes pretty obvious that this is what we should be doing. It's a bit of a no brainer, really.

The big fear of a single service is that you lose the local focus. I am absolutely determined, as are the people who work in the organisation, that we don't lose that local focus. So there are a number of things that we've done to lock that in. I think the Government would say that they are locking that in by insisting on 17,234 cops. I would say that's the raw material but how you lock it in is how you deploy them and we have done that by dividing Scotland into 14 territorial divisions.

Below that there are 73 local areas that we police, and each of these has got a chief inspector in charge, and then you are starting to get down to a much more local area. Below that there are 353 local wards across Scotland. Each one of those will have its own policing plan, they will be available on the Police Scotland website to look at, and these have been created in partnership with the local population.

You've said that the less serious the incident, the less the public will notice the change but the investigation of the most serious crimes should improve.

Absolutely. That's exactly what we hope for. The ambition for normal policing is that in terms of community cops and responses to normal incidents, unless they are an avid badge watcher, they won't notice any difference. So the car that pulls up outside their house will not say Lothian and Borders Police, it will just say Police.

On the other hand, the murder or the more serious incident, that falls under the remit of our Serious Crime Division - that has already been up and running for a month now and has already dealt with two murders and a suspicious death. It dealt with the death and suicide in Fife, it dealt with an unexplained death in Wick, and it has dealt with a murder in Airdrie over the weekend as well. So, there is a difference there, particularly in the case of Wick. Two detective constables work out of Wick but what was deployed was a full major investigation team. It had to battle through the weather to get there but you are talking about some 20 officers.

The Government had three aims from the single force. One was to reinforce community policing and we think that with the 353 ward plans we can do that. The second is that they wanted to increase public scrutiny and local involvement with policing, and the third was to improve access to specialist services across Scotland. It's that last one where the specialist crime division is a very good example of how exactly we are going to do that.

We've heard about a recent case of a woman reported in distress in Dunfermline where the local officers suspected she was a victim of trafficking? How will the new force help that?

We set up a national human trafficking unit, not massive but it is a centre of specialism, which combines a couple of units that worked in different parts of the country until now. That will act as a repository for our data and they are dealing with the incident so they can make sure the victim was properly interviewed, debriefed properly so that we know exactly what happened to her and how it came about, who was involved, and giving us a better chance of investigating it.

What would have happened in the past, and this is in no way a criticism of existing organisations, but not every force had a human trafficking unit so they didn't have the expertise. They would be unlikely to refer it to another force's human trafficking unit. They wouldn't feel they had the power to do that. What we can do is step in an say we will have the national unit have a look at that.

The same applies to rape investigation. We have set up a national rape task force. It won't investigate every rape that takes place but it will make sure all are properly investigated, they will look at those that are undetected after a while, check that we have done all we can do, make sure that training of all the officers is up to speed, and it will effectively be a centre for good practice across the country. It allows us to ensure we are providing a service to victims of rape and chasing down offenders countrywide.

We have set up a domestic abuse task force to do much the same, dealing with the more serious cases, providing advice and taking on investigations if that becomes appropriate.

What happens from midnight on Sunday when we dial 999 and ask for the police?

From Monday when you dial 999 there will be no change at all. There are ten control rooms across Scotland and none of these are changing on day one, which is why in terms of ICT the risks are relatively small. We're not flicking any switches or pushing any buttons at midnight.

I'd be very surprised if there remained ten control rooms because it's not a sustainable model. You might have needed it for eight police forces but for a single police service for Scotland you would probably need three or four control rooms. There's no timescale but the budget pressures suggest we would want to be moving towards that relatively quickly, say over the next couple of years. But not a single control room because what happens if somebody cuts through the power line for that control room? You would need resilience and fall-back which suggests you would want two at least and for regional cover perhaps three as a minimum for the country.

The non-emergency 101 number has been up and running since last month across the country which means that if you want to contact the police the simplest way of doing it is simply dialling 101. You then get put through to a local number because the system hunts out your local police station. It means that if you are driving down the road in a part of Scotland you don't know and you see something that's not quite right you can pull over into a lay-by and all you need to do is phone 101, even on a mobile, to be put through to the nearest police station. It's working very well. We have had tens of thousands of people use it already and the numbers are going up every week, but we want more people to use it.

Why have you chosen to combine counter terrorism with investigating organised crime?

We have a national counter terrorism and organised crime unit. We do this slightly differently in Scotland than in England and Wales, where this a specialism of policing that deals with counter terrorism and a specialism that deals with organised crime. What we have done in Scotland under the new service is put these two specialisms together.

There are two reasons for this. One is because a lot of the skills, attributes and equipment are similar. You need detective abilities but you need surveillance skills as well. You need the best interviewers. You need to be able to deal with the people professionally. There is a skills match.

The other reason is effectiveness and efficiency. Organised crime is a big issue in Scotland. You could be busy all the time, dealing with organised crime. Counter terrorism is a smaller need, not insignificant but it's not massive. I don't think the country would want us to have the funding to have battalions of cops sitting round waiting for a terrorist incident when actually there is a whole load of stuff they can be doing on organised crime issues. So we have them doing both.

I think it's a fundamental point because, actually, you can provide all the training you want for counter terrorism officers but if they are not employed daily then they get stale. Our view is that when we have to deploy a surveillance team on a terrorist cell we want them to be absolutely at the top of their game, match fit, really experienced, used to working with each other and to working with the equipment. If the way they get that is through working against a drug gang over the last few months they just switch in. They can do it.

With fewer top posts, could more limited career opportunities affect current morale in the police force?

It's a different mindset. We've gone from eight chief constables, eight deputies and 15 or so ACCs to a situation with one chief, four deputies and six assistants, so we have halved the number and halved the bill, so we have save a couple of million pounds just doing that. That's a good thing as far as the public is concerned. In my view it's a good thing in terms of command structures because it clears posts out and you can see the wood for the trees, and see clear lines of accountability and responsibility, which is good.

But there is no doubt there are less opportunities numerically to reach chief officer rank. Having said that the people who aspire to chief officer rank are chief superintendents and superintendents, and there will be less of them as well, so we are thinning out senior management all the way down the line. We did that at Strathclyde as well.

I think opportunities still came along for people. I didn't feel a level of huge unfulfilled ambition at Strathclyde. Not everybody who joins the police wants to get promoted. Most are either looking to stay as constable or become sergeant at some point, and thank goodness for that because the last thing your would want is everybody wanting to be chief constable. Equally, you want a certain level of aspiration and ambition because that is a healthy thing but I am clear we will have a very clear command structure and that we will still have opportunities for promotion.

Cutting civilian posts and filling them with police officers is surely a false economy?

I'd be pretty stupid to say there have not been occasions where odd isolated jobs, where someone has left as a member of support staff, a copper has been put in place but these are isolated and temporary. There is no strategy to backfill.

All posts go in front of a panel and they look at it job by job and decide can we afford to let this person go? The criteria they use is, do we have to replace this individual or is this job deletable? If this job is and the post closes we let them go. If the post stays open and we have to have someone doing that job, the question is can you bump another civilian into that job? It is called bumping and the unions recognise that as a phrase.

That would allow someone who wants to go, to go and guarantee a job for the other civilian. It's a win-win. If the answer is yes, you can bump, we might let that person go. If the answer is no, you can't lose that job at all and there is no-one bumpable into that job then we won't let them go.

There is no criteria to say, we'll fill it with a cop. In fact, if the answer is we'd have to fill it with a cop, then we can't let them go. For those who want to go and we can't release, it's a real bone of contention. The emails I get complaining about voluntary redundancy are from people I don't let go.

What is your view of the very public spat between you as chief constable and Vic Emery, convener of the Scottish Police Authority?

It would have been better if it could have been avoided. Yes, it was unfortunate. I think a lot of it was simplified by the media. It wasn't a personality clash and I don't think it was a power struggle either. I think it was a factor of time. You've got a new police service, a new police authority and new legislation, all coming together in a period of 18 months, which is quite a short period of time. Police authority members have only been in place since November, I have only been in place since October, as has Vick, so you are talking about a six month period where it's all been crammed into.

I think there's bound to be rubbing points. There's bound to be 'what does the legislation mean, how do we interpret this, what are our respective roles?' It would be really strange if there wasn't, to be honest.

So I don't think there has been anything out of the ordinary here. I think it's been a busy period and we've been trying to get on with our respective roles as best we can, and we have worked our way through it. When they changed the governance arrangements in the Metropolitan Police in 1999 from control by the Home Secretary, they created a police authority. It was set up and ran in shadow for 12 months. They didn't have any power but practised their relationship with the Met for 12 months and there were still problems.

Here we have had no shadow period at all. The service and authority are created and bang, within three months you're responsible for all this. It's been a pressured environment to get it done on time but it’s been doable. It's been a lot work crammed into a short period of time.