Call for gangster tax means no bingo for House

So, Stephen House, current Chief Constable of Strathclyde police force, has begun setting out his stall for the high heid yin post of the soon-to-be-created national police force of Scotland. Hardly surprising really, given, he was one of its main proponents and cheerleaders and managed to sweep away the offstage mutterings and grumblings from the rank and file, as well as other high-ranking police officers – all of whom, it needs to be pointed out, have a far better and longer formed understanding of the culture of Scottish policing than Mr House.

No sooner had he won this battle, but his head was turned by goings-on at the Met. The careless loss of the Commissioner under the weight of the phone hacking scandal resulted in an unexpected vacancy for the (supposedly) top job in British policing (sic).  House applied and this observer was fascinated to see how he manoeuvred himself into the headlines over the London riots.

In scratching around for possible solutions to a rioting feral underclass of yoof, the media hit upon an innovative anti-gang initiative operating in Glasgow.  At first, its creator and architect, the wonderfully talented and intelligent Karyn McCluskey was – rightly – lauded with praise for her efforts in getting the initiative underway and in shaping its development.  It didn’t take long for House to muscle in on the act.  Soon, some articles had airbrushed McCluskey’s and indeed, the Violence Reduction Unit – first set up in Strathclyde force area before House’s time and now extended to have an all-Scotland remit – role out of the picture.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to see coincidence than serendipity at work here between the publicity around this successful programme and the timing of the application process for a new Commissioner.

House failed, despite being widely tipped for that role too.

And now, in tilting his peaked cap at the new national police force’s top job, House has made a high-profile pitch into funding policy and strategy.  Arguing today in the Sunday Herald, he suggests the lucrative funds flowing into Scottish Government coffers under the Proceeds of Crime Act (PoCA) should be used as a “gangster tax” rather than what is sniffily referred to as “good causes”.  His proposal is that if given more funding from this source, his police force, and eventually the national squad, would be incentivised to tackle organised crime more effectively.  The more organised crime they detect, the more money they raise, enabling still more organised crime to be tackled.

Yet again, we have a highly paid publicly official arguing for more money to incentivise him and his officers to do the job expected of them.  If organised crime is such a problem – and it appears to be – why isn’t the Chief Constable worrying away at freeing up the resources from within his existing budget to tackle the problem?  No one doubts that this is policing at its most risky, intensive and painstaking.  These career criminals get rich because they are good at what they do and very careful to cover their traces.  Undeniably, the riches that flow from extensive organised criminal activity make them better resourced than the police;  it is arguable that however much money is applied to tackling the issue, it won’t ever be enough.

Before we all rush to embrace Stephen House’s bright idea, it is worth working out how much of his current annual budget of some £400 million plus is currently applied to this highly specialised area of policing.  It’s proved impossible for this sleuth to find out, because Strathclyde Police’s website only provides budgets up to 2011.  The current year’s budget is missing – has anyone filed a report?

But even looking at the 2010-11 budget and the accounts for that year would need one of the expensive forensic accountants the Chief Constable is angling after to make sense of it all.  I don’t think I’ve seen such little detail in a revenue budget ever.  All there is is a top line of £459.117 million expenditure, comprising mainly of “net operational CCLS (?)” of £453.717 million with no explanation as to how this sum is arrived at or indeed, what it is required to fund.

Unsurprising then, that the 2011 Best Value Audit and Inspection conducted by the Accounts Commission called on the force “to continue to develop its methodology to better understand the costs of policing activity and link to resource deployment“.  In layperson terms, the Commission is suggesting, politely, that the force doesn’t have a scooby how much money it needs to run its operations and whether or not the amount it currently spends on different activities is enough, too little or too much.

This appears to be backed up by the published force accounts for 2010-11 which appears to indicate that Strathclyde police spent £522.324 million on its policing activities (not including pension costs), a near £70 million overspend.  The accounts also reveal that the amount the force reckoned it could generate in income in 2010-11 – £250 million – was either wildly optimistic (only £63.15 million was generated against particular police service activities, a huge drop against the previous year) or woefully under-represented (the total gross income, not including pensions, came to some £636 million thanks to an unspecified “non distributed gain”).

Whatever, the mismatch between budget and annual accounts suggests an approach akin to plucking figures out of the air and hoping for the best.  And yet here we have Mr House asking us to trust him with even more public money.  Perhaps if he had a business case to present based on robustly determined figures and calculations he might get on better.

However, he might be entitled to claim that such detail is for further down the line – all he is doing at the moment is trying to get a debate going about how best to utilise PoCA monies.  There is no shame in that:  he wouldn’t be the first public official to be heard suggesting that there are only so many games of midnight basketball a nation needs.  Many are somewhat frustrated to see the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, continue to adhere to his very populist approach to this windfall fund and have been calling for some time for it to have a more strategic focus beyond doling out the pork barrel to albeit valuable and useful community diversionary activities for young people.

But as everyone knows, the Justice Secretary is very much his own man, with very definite ideas of what he wants to achieve with his portfolio and in particular, with the Cashback for Communities Fund.  The very fact that Stephen House has chosen to question the appropriateness of his approach and in such a public way means his idea and perhaps even, his career aspirations, are doomed.  Perhaps if Mr House was a little more steeped and versed in the ways and means of the Scottish political village, and in particular, the political personality of the big boss, he would have realised this.

No amount of tipping by the press will help his cause if the Justice Secretary feels slighted by today’s kite-flying exercise: he might not have a monopoly on wisdom, to coin a phrase, but if House had been serious about getting the Justice Secretary to take on his idea, he would have presented it quietly.  And in choosing to tout his credentials to be top dog in a way that challenges the Justice Secretary’s thinking so openly – while shamelessly attempting to gain the confidence of one of his Cabinet colleagues (the Finance Secretary) – will have caused many in the policing and justice community to doubt his suitability for the post.

My money’s on Strang at Lothian and Borders.  If he wants it.


6 thoughts on “Call for gangster tax means no bingo for House

  1. Arguing today in the Sunday Herald, he suggests the lucrative funds flowing into Scottish Government coffers under the Proceeds of Crime Act (PoCA) should be used as a “gangster tax” rather than what is sniffily referred to as “good causes”. His proposal is that if given more funding from this source, his police force,, and eventually the national squad, would be incentivised to tackle organised crime more effectively. The more organised crime they detect, the more money they raise…

    That is an appalling argument for anybody to offer, far less a senior law enforcement officer. Extending that to its logical conclusion, we can deduce that House’s police are not sufficiently motivated to deal with crime when there’s no extra money in it for them. Nor is there any incentive for them to eradicate crime which might currently be generating a decent income for them.

    It appears to me that this man has already been promoted well beyond his ability.

  2. Linking recovery to funding stream is a dangerous precedent that would rightfully raise questions about operational decision making and priorities.
    Seizing money and giving to 3rd party projects separates the law enforcers from that gain.
    As for House, the man is dragging Strathclyde into a target mad, no discretion hell that other parts of Scotland are only just recovering from following similiar approaches by their former ACPO (Eng & Wales) Chiefs.
    House would be a disaster for policing, a disaster for Scotland and a disaster for decency.
    My money’s on Justine Curran at Tayside.

  3. I have to say as a weegie I think Stephen House has been fantastic. I would qialify that by saying that it’s probably not all him. His tenure has coincided with a Scottish Government that has been singing from the same hymn sheet on vartious issues such as community policing. But whatever the case the difference in oolicing in Glasgow from before his tenure has been tremendous. Here are a few reasons why.

    1. More police on the streets. Not just the extra paid for by the SG (and GCC also paid for extra police in troublesome areas) but he has imsisted on senior ranks getting out and taking their turn pounding the beat as well.

    2. More proactive police. They spend more time now popping into shops and pubs and restaurants asking if everything is OK. I know ,my local shopkeepers really appreciate that. The community police also run surgeries at their police offices so anyone can go in and have a chat about concerns they may have.

    3. More responsive police – response times are a lot faster. It used to be if you phoned the police to report something that was relatively low level you would maybe get a visit the next day. Things are a lot better now. in that respect.

    4. Better organised police. The community police are now organised along the same boundaries as council wards. You can go onto the website, look up your ward, get names and contact details for your local police – and it also makes it easier to tie in with other services and organisations e.g. community councils.

    5. More popular policing. The police seem to pay more attention to local concerns now – because they consult on them, not just through community councils etc but in other ways, surveys and so on. So if they know that boy racers are the thing people are most concerned about in a particular area that is what they focus on, elsewhere it might be car theft or drugs, whatever the local priority is. They also take a much more proactive approach regarding Orange Walks etc. This is something that should have happened years ago – decades ago in fact. For so long the Orange Walk was seen as untouchable but no longer. As well as policing the march they police the march followers – you’ll see them go up to people in the street, take their name and address, then take their drink off them and pour it away in front of them. No more does the Orange Walk mean a load of drunken bampots on the rampage and what a relief that is to people.

    So over the past 5/6 years in Glasgow there has been quite a transformation and I think most people would say it has been very very much for the better. Of course that may not mean anything in terms of whether Stephen House is the right person for the top job but I just wanted to put on record that in my view he has done an outstanding job in terms of policing as most of us experiecnce it i.e at community level in Glasgow. Whether that would also make him the right person to be in charge of policing in Crieff or Dingwall or Aberdeen is another question.

    As regards his idea about using the proceeeds of crime to fight organised crime, I am in two minds about that. Because it would mean taking money away from a lot of diversionary projects at the same time that local government budgets are being tightened so the chances are many of them would just go to the wall. But on the other hand I would also be against trimming the community policing budget to increase resources to tackle organised crime – much as I agree with the idea of tackling organised crime. It’s a tricky one.

  4. Perhaps the good police officer should realise that if he succeeds in defeating organised crime – unlikely – his additional source of revenue will dry up, thus allowing the criminals back. Sort of circle of life thing……

    As to the proposed head of a centralised police force, it should be offered to the people who have not been dropping subtle hints. Desire for some power methinks, something unwanted in the police and any other public service.

    • indeed – you make my point much more eloquently! And hadn’t thought of your first one but absolutely spot on. It also ignores the prevention agenda that we need to prevent the next generation of Mr Bigs by encouraging alternative options/choices

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