3 questions about the call for Police Scotland’s Sir Stephen House’s resignation

Scottish Labour has called for Sir Stephen House’s resignation. Its call is on the back of a problem in Police Scotland’s handling of non-emergency calls (to its 101 number) which led to a major delay in finding two people who died in a car crash. Labour’s position is that this is one of many examples of failures in Police Scotland, that it has lost the confidence of the public, and that the service is feeling the strain of reform – so, House’s resignation is necessary to make sure that a review into Police Scotland’s operations will re-establish its reputation (the Scottish Government does not agree).

This position raises some interesting questions to people who remember the days in which ministers would be held responsible for such mistakes.

  1. What happened to ministerial accountability?

Many bodies need to be separated, somehow, from direct ministerial control to ensure their legitimacy. The police force and legal system are key examples: it would not be proper for a justice minister to have direct control over the arrest and prosecution of individuals, for principled reasons in the short term (they could influence the treatment of their supporters or opponents) and long term (to ensure the consistent application of legal principles and operational practices subject to minimal short term political interference).

In such cases, chief executives of government agencies take responsibility for operational decisions, allowing ministers to reject the historic idea that they should resign whenever anything goes wrong in their departments simply because they are ultimately responsible (‘sacrificial accountability’), to decide whether to redirect queries to other bodies, keep Parliament informed routinely of public body activities, explain problems, or promise to intervene.

The accountability landscape remains unclear when ministers devolve decisions to public bodies, with their own means to demonstrate institutional accountability, but also intervene, in an ad hoc way, to deal with institutional crises or address concerns when ‘operational’ and policy matters seem overlap (such as the ‘stop and search’ of teenagers to reduce knife crime, or the use of firearms by police officers). However, it tends to ensure, at least more than in the past, that the buck generally stops with chief executives.

2. Is the chief executive accountable in a meaningful way?

The reasoning behind a decision not to sacrifice ministers is sound: why call for a ministerial resignation every time something goes wrong in a department, particularly when the problem resulted from events, and decisions made by other people, that the minister could not be reasonably expected to anticipate? Such resignations can be disruptive and counterproductive, prompting a period of flux when a new minster has to learn the job from scratch. It also smacks of cynical symbolism – a gesture to the public, to protect the government, which does not solve the real problem.

In such cases, a minister can be accountable in a more meaningful way when s/he intervenes to address the problems caused by other individuals or organisations, introduces reforms to prevent similar problems arising in the future, and keeps Parliament and the public informed.

If we accept this principle, we should apply it to the chief executives of public bodies. Before deciding that they should resign because they are responsible for poor outcomes, we might first establish that: (a) the decisions they made contributed significantly to the problem; and/ or (b) they are not well placed to intervene to solve it (or that someone else is demonstrably better equipped to do the job). Otherwise, such resignations will be unnecessarily disruptive and expensive (since the political removal of a chief executive, without demonstrating incompetence, will likely involve a decent payoff).

Labour’s statement that ‘The Scottish Police Authority has utterly failed to hold Police Scotland to account in any way’ seems to rely on an argument which harks back to the outmoded notion of sacrificial responsibility that we no longer apply to ministers, while the SPA – when expressing support for House – draws on the idea that chief executives should stay in post while they can solve problems.

3. Can House use the same argument favoured by the SNP?

The SNP generally has an effective set of arguments for poor outcomes in devolved policies: we are constrained by decisions made by the UK Government; their decisions undermine the extent to which we can go our own way; and, sometimes we can only mitigate the worst effects, or deal with the unintended consequences of, their policies.

With Police Scotland, the same argument applies to many of the high profile events that have arisen since its reform: we are driven by policies made by the Scottish Government. This includes a major drive to reform the service as a whole, to streamline some services and save money in some areas – and to do it while maintaining the same number of police officers (another high profile decision of the SNP). The decision to keep police numbers at the same level means that all cost savings will come from organisational reform or reductions in support staff, producing inevitable reductions in local capacity when a national service can be concentrated in fewer units. The decision to have a national service also has a knock on effect on the reporting of police practices – so, practices that have been happening for years (such as stop and search practices) now look more significant or become associated with the policies of a single chief executive.

Overall, I am not simply making an argument to support House. For all I know, he may be to blame in these high profile cases – but I have not seen this argument made well or consistently by people calling for his resignation. Rather, I am saying that his critics, calling for his resignation, should present a more reasoned account, addressing the above points, to demonstrate that he is responsible in a meaningful way. The very broad ‘the buck stops with the chief executive’ argument (perhaps coupled with the suggestion that House is a prickly character) seems misguided in this case.

Motion S4M-13800: Hugh Henry, Renfrewshire South, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 21/07/2015

Police Scotland
That the Parliament expresses its shock and sadness at the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill following a car crash on the M9; calls on the Scottish Government to publish, in full and as quickly as possible, the inquiry by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland into call handling at Police Scotland; expresses concern at what it sees as a number of failings by Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s ministers, including reductions in the number of services and civilian staff and a lack of transparency over armed officers and stop and search policy; considers that incidents such as this recent tragedy have had a negative impact on public confidence in policing; believes that the Scottish Police Authority has proved to be inadequate, and reluctantly concludes that, in the interests of restoring public trust in Police Scotland, the Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, should resign with immediate effect.

Supported by: Iain Gray, James Kelly, Anne McTaggart, Hanzala Malik, Lewis Macdonald, Michael McMahon, Elaine Murray, John Pentland, Sarah Boyack, Mary Fee, Duncan McNeil, Patricia Ferguson, Claudia Beamish, Graeme Pearson, Cara Hilton, Jayne Baxter, Jenny Marra, Paul Martin, Siobhan McMahon, Drew Smith, Richard Simpson

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