Son of South Uist who became Police voice

Calum Steele has proved himself an able advocate for the rights and protection of police officers.Calum Steele has proved himself an able advocate for the rights and protection of police officers.
Calum Steele has proved himself an able advocate for the rights and protection of police officers.
The last time I interviewed Calum Steele, he was 18 months into the role of general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, the trade union for Scotland’s 17,000 police men and women up to the rank of Chief Inspector. Last week, he retired after 15 years in that job.

In the interim period, he grew into a highly effective representative of his members’ interests and a familiar voice on their behalf whenever there was a public controversy involving Scotland’s policing. Neither did he shy away from controversy, particularly once Twitter became the main instrument of public discourse.

Indeed, Calum marked his retirement day by weighing into the Kate Forbes debate from the perspective of an islander who found the “othering” of religious beliefs offensive. He recalled having been stationed in Harris and never once encountering religious discrimination, even though he had been “the token Catholic”. The rest of Scotland, he suggested, had a lot to learn.

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Previously he had “gone public” with scathing denunciations of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill from a policing perspective. “The madness of incoherent policy positioning has always been there for those of us prepared to look”, he wrote in The Times, “but it now has nowhere to hide”.

These were characteristically robust interventions on behalf of what he thought was right. They also suggested that though Calum has departed from the role in which he became a public figure, his retirement is unlikely to be a quiet one. “I think I still have something to contribute”, he confirms and he is unlikely to be short of invitations to do so.

I knew Calum’s dad, Roddy Steele, whose memory is maintained in Daliburgh through a road named after him, Slighe Ruairaidh Chalum Ruaraidh. Roddy was one of the most stalwart backers of crofting principles and was deeply involved in the creation of a Crofters Union; a man of vision who commanded universal respect.

In his book, The Claim of Crofting, James Hunter wrote that Roddy’s premature death in 1987 “deprived the crofting community of one of its ablest spokesmen”. Roddy died aged just 50, three months after he had been diagnosed with cancer, leaving his wife Mary and five children of whom Calum, at 15, was the oldest. It was a huge loss for crofting and South Uist but most of all for his family.

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“His death had a phenomenal impact on the family and though I was just a young teenager at the time, I believe it had a profound impact on the community as well”, Calum recalled. The police became his career path but the word “union” was deeply imbedded in his psyche. Calum never doubted that the influence of his father shaped his own lifelong interest in helping others to win “what is fair and right”.

That is what he has being doing on behalf of Scotland’s police officers for the past 15 years – as a tough negotiator on pay and conditions, highly skilled in stating their case, as well as publicly defending his members from what he regarded as unfair treatment either by employers or the wider public.

Thwarted in his first ambition to become a pilot, due to his eyesight not being good enough, Calum wrote to a range of employers and “the police came back first” so he joined the Northern Constabulary at the age of 19 in 1993. He was first stationed in Inverness and found that it gave him an excellent grounding. “It was busy but not so busy that you couldn’t get to know people and I had a very good relationship with the youngsters in the area where I worked”.

However, it was the next posting that stands out as a particularly rewarding period in his life – and to which he was still alluding via Twitter and on radio last week. “I was sent to Tarbert, Harris, and I think that I might have been the first Gaelic-speaking policeman to have been in that job. The people were generous and kind, sometimes to the point of embarrassment, and almost universally law-abiding”.

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His beat also took him over the border into Lewis where his memories from the 1990s are less idyllic. Deer poaching, particularly on Aline estate, was still a serious business and on two occasions the communications mast at Maaruig was put out of action to inhibit police activity in the area. It cost around £250,000 a time to restore but worse than that, the whole emergency services network in the Western Isles, both on land and at sea, were put at risk.

Calum then had a stint in Dingwall where he found “an unhealthy relationship with alcohol” to be the main problem resulting in “far more serious road accidents than I encountered elsewhere”. In general, he regards “the waste of young life in car crashes” as the biggest tragedy he encountered as a Highland policeman.

While still a young officer in Tarbert, Calum stood for election as the islands’ representative for the Scottish Police Federation, covering Orkney and Shetland as well as the Western Isles. He lost by one vote but, once based in Dingwall, tried again and this time was elected as the local SPF representative for the Highlands.

From there, he rose quickly through the union ranks and was elected as General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation for the first time in 2008. It is a highly democratic organisation and each term lasts for three years, so Calum is bowing out now with five elected stints under his belt.

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In terms of Scottish policing, it has been a period of enormous change, the biggest upheaval being the formation of Police Scotland in 2013 at which point all local authority responsibility for policing, through regional Police Boards, disappeared. They were replaced by a Scottish Police Authority accountable direct to the Scottish Government. It was a case of “Northern Constabulary no more…”.

Calum describes it as “arguably the biggest political decision taken in Scotland since devolution” and after a decade his report card on Police Scotland is distinctly mixed. Without doubt, he says, it has made the investigation of serious, organised crime more effective. Whether that required all police functions to be centralised into a single force is another question.

He says: “It has undoubtedly come at the expense of physical policing, particularly in rural communities. It is not just the buildings that have been lost but in many cases the contacts between police and public. In more and more communities, people do not see the point of phoning the police”.

He says that the break between local authorities and policing has been “a massive, massive failure … I am pretty sure that if there had been the previous level of input from elected representatives, the scale of cuts and closures would never have happened”. The Scottish Police Authority, says Calum, might know about finance “but have no idea what is going on in communities”.

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Calum’s background makes him particularly aware of the damage done by police station closures in the islands and he rhymes off the ones that have been lost over the past decade in Lewis and Skye, both of which have been centralised around a single station. When I last interviewed him, Calum described Tarbert as “the best station, not only in the Northern Constabulary but in the whole of Scotland”. Now it too has gone.

One effect of this swingeing programme of closures, he says, is that the police no longer have “intelligence systems about what is happening in an area because there is no engagement with the people and nobody on the ground to feed in information. Matters that would have been reported and dealt with in the past become tolerated because people don’t see any point in reporting them”.

Calum’s period in office at the SPF has coincided almost exactly with there being an SNP government at Holyrood. The first Alex Salmond administration, he says, was “very good”. He explains: “I don’t think they expected to be there long and there was a willingness to cut through the bureaucracy and talk direct to people and to listen. They wanted to get things done”.

Thereafter however, the relationship cooled. “I think when they created the single police force and the SPA, they thought that was policing done. I don’t really understand it. They always want to say they are doing things better than in the rest of the UK, but they have seen from the rest of the UK what happens when you cut police numbers and budgets, yet they seem determined to go down the same path”.

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In the course of his SPF career, Calum has become deeply involved in international police organisations and will continue in a role he has held since 2010 as Secretary General of the International Council of Police Representative Associations – an umbrella organisation for police trade unions around the world – or at least parts of it.

“Like many of these bodies”, he says, “it started as a fraternal organisation, but its role has been developing, and we have recently gained recognition from the International Labour Organisation. For a hundred years, they regarded the police as part of the state apparatus so they had to be persuaded of the distinction – policing is a function of the state but the people who carry it out are workers”.

Progress in advancing that essential democratic concept is understandably slow but ICPRA supports progress where the possibility does arise. For example, says Calum, there is “a young union in Argentina just now, who we’re trying to help get recognition”. He talks about “codifying the labour rights of police officers around the world” and that on its own sounds like a mission that could keep him busy indefinitely.

However, there will also be calls on his services closer to home. On top of the skills and insights Calum has developed both as a police officer and union leader, he is a highly effective communicator who can hold his own in any environment. Better still, he can do it in both languages and “doing something for Gaelic” is high on his post-retirement agenda. And that will take him right back to the roots from which he grew.