The politics of the Old Firm: The chief constable should be asked to stand up his claims


by Kenneth Roy

One man will be able to take the credit – if credit it turns out to be – for this week’s ‘top-level summit’ with the first minister over the disturbances on and off the field at the most recent Old Firm game.  Had it not been for the personal intervention of the chief constable of Strathclyde, there would be no ‘summit’ and the events of last Wednesday would already be forgotten by the wider public.

His name is Stephen House.  Since a great deal of misplaced hysteria has been generated by his action, and since the action itself may prove to be mistaken, it is worth taking a closer look at Mr House and what he appears to stand for.

A year after his appointment in 2007, he went public with an extraordinary suggestion.  “Forget criminality,” he was quoted as saying, “we’ll take DNA from everyone in the country.”  If this was indeed what he said – and I have been unable to find any retraction of it – it was not only ill-worded but seriously misleading and horrific in its implications.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Mr House had no power then, and has no power now, to take DNA from everyone in the country.  It was only an idea.

The chief constable had thought of a way of achieving his ambition.  He proposed that DNA should be taken from every new-born child and that the same should happen to anyone applying for a driving licence. I n this way, ‘gradually over the years’ (as he put it), a comprehensive database would be created.  It did not seem to have occurred to Mr House – or, if it had, he had discounted it – that his proposal, presented as an intention, would represent a universal infringement of civil liberties, that it would involve subjecting every citizen to indignity, and that it was open to error and abuse.  No doubt, however, it would make the police’s job very much easier.

Those of us opposed to the idea – I would like to think the majority, but maybe I am deluding myself – were consoled that Mr House was a police officer and not a policy-maker.  Worryingly, with his peremptory demand for top-level summits, he seems to want to be a policy-maker too.  But at least he is a good policeman.  A very good one, it seems.  In 2009, he was awarded, on top of his basic salary of £169,584 a year, a ‘performance-related bonus’ of £25,150 – a total of £194,734.

If I were one of Alex Salmond’s advisers, I would be asking for a detailed breakdown before any decisions are taken at this summit; and I would also be asking for a clarification of the conflicting evidence about domestic abuse.

What did Mr House do to earn such a colossal bonus (not colossal by bankers’ standards, of course, but colossal by policemen’s – or indeed by the standards of most other public servants)?

It is possible to point to at least one worthwhile new initiative under his watch: the ‘Domestic Abuse Task Force’, the first of its kind in the country.  There are more than 50,000 incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland every year, of which half occur in Strathclyde, so there was no doubt of the need for such a unit. In Glasgow, the police identified a clear link with Old Firm games and with the Christmas/New Year holiday period, and sensibly concentrated much of their efforts in December and early January.

The task force was, it seemed, highly successful.  A year ago this month, Strathclyde Police reported a drop in the number of domestic abuse cases following Old Firm games.  The 152 incidents logged after the game in May 2009 dropped to 102 after the February 2010 fixture; on non-Old Firm weekends, the number of such cases was between 80 and 100.  Around the same time, the Scottish Government announced that the incidence of domestic abuse in Scotland as a whole had dropped for the first time in 10 years – by 4% – almost certainly as a result of the task force’s work.

As recently as August last year, Mr House gave an interview to a local newspaper, the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser, explaining how the task force operates.  “We have a list of the most serious offenders in each area,'”he said, “and we go round and call on every one of them [before an Old Firm match] and we say – control yourself because we are watching you, we have your address, we know where you live, and we will come and get you.”

“What do the statistics tell you?” the chief constable was asked.

“It has an effect,” he replied. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in domestic abuse around Old Firm matches.”

How quickly these encouraging trends appear to have been reversed.  Mr House now cites the level of domestic abuse as one of the social and economic costs of the Old Firm fixtures – costs that he believes have become intolerable; costs that compelled him to speak personally to Alex Salmond last Thursday morning; costs that have inspired the ‘top-level summit’ in Edinburgh.

A tiny question: actually, how many cases of domestic abuse were recorded after the match on Wednesday evening?  The only figure I have been able to source appeared in the Sun.  The figure that newspaper published was 40.  The Sun thought this shocking.  But if it is true, it would represent a further dramatic reduction in the incidence of such violence – to less than half the level recorded on normal weekends.  Perhaps Strathclyde Police would care to give us an official figure for last Wednesday so that a proper evaluation of the ‘night that shamed Scotland’ can be made ahead of the top-level summit.

The total cost of the Old Firm fixtures over the year is estimated by Mr House and his colleagues at £40 million.  This is a staggering figure.  How on earth is it arrived at?  If I were one of Alex Salmond’s advisers, I would be asking for a detailed breakdown before any decisions are taken at this summit; and I would also be asking for a clarification of the conflicting evidence about domestic abuse.

There has been enough grandstanding.  Unless the real policy-makers exercise reason and wisdom, this week’s political reaction, far from calming a volatile situation, could further damage fragile community relations in Glasgow.

Click here for Kenneth Roy’s Friday special on the Old Firm row

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
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