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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Chief Constable's resignation is an opportunity to look afresh at Police Scotland

The resignation of Sir Stephen House in itself isn’t a solution to the problems facing Police Scotland.

The Chief Constable of Police Scotland has decided to leave his post in December, some nine months earlier than planned. This follows a number of high profile incidents in which the force has been criticised including; the three-day delay in responding to the M9 crash, routine arming of officers, stop and search policies and alleged spying on journalists.

UNISON Scotland’s response to Stephen House’s resignation was to wish him well in the future. While we sometimes disagreed, he was a decent chief constable who engaged fully with staff trade unions. We should also recognise that there have been positive innovations at police Scotland that don't attract media attention.

My own view is that he was a traditional chief constable, both at Strathclyde and then Police Scotland, firmly in the command and control school of leadership. Senior police officers brought up in this traditional leadership model often find it difficult to adapt to the more collaborative style of leadership that is largely the norm elsewhere in the public sector. Heroic leaders quickly find that to achieve anything in public service you have to work with other agencies, and that requires strong collaborative skills.

Command and control is also a problem when you have a police force the size of Police Scotland. Unlike some of the smaller forces it replaced, it is hugely challenging for any leader to be connected to what is going on at the sharp end. Scotland isn't a homogenous community and therefore they're will always been a conflict between the apparent efficiencies of centralisation, consistency of approach and local needs.

He was also in the traditional school of policing when it came to UNISON’s key issue, police civilianisation. I can recall us both giving evidence to the Justice Committee when he was still the Strathclyde CC, when he almost went as far as saying he would prefer all police staff to be constables. In fairness, at Police Scotland, when the consequences of the daft 1,000 extra officers policy became apparent, he became less dogmatic on this point. The best police leaders in the UK understand that a balanced staffing policy is the best approach, not just on grounds of cost, but also to ensure the force has the right mix of specialist skills.

The opportunity to correct this policy was when Police Scotland was created. However, the then Justice Secretary failed to grasp the opportunity. That was a political failure and not the responsibility of Stephen House. He was lumbered with an unworkable staffing policy in the context of having to make £1.1bn of cuts.

The primary problems facing any Chief Constable of Police Scotland are structural and political. The sheer size of the force means that it’s a cumbersome beast; prone to one size fits all solutions. While it probably isn’t practical to dismantle Police Scotland, it should be possible to design a model that devolves much greater control to communities.

The structure of Police Scotland scrutinised by the Scottish Police Authority was always going to be difficult, as we warned at the outset. We should scrap the SPA and create a national joint police board. If the funding is also routed through local authorities, we could recover the £26m of VAT that now goes to the Treasury.

The political problems are well illustrated by some of the recent operational incidents, which happened a long way from the control of the chief constable. However, a national force brings with it national scrutiny, both political and media. The structure also gives the Justice Secretary a much greater opportunity to dabble. The current Justice secretary has a different approach to his predecessor, but the political reality is that he also becomes accountable for every operational failure. The ‘not me guv’ response has its limitations.

Stephen House’s early departure, along with the SPA Chair, may not address most of the problems facing Police Scotland. However, it is an opportunity to take a long hard look at Police Scotland and make some sensible changes that will mitigate at least some of the consequences of national policing.

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