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.