A MAJOR report into police call-handing following the M9 crash has identified staff shortages at the Bilston Glen control room in Midlothian when work was transferred there from elsewhere in the country.
The report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) said lack of personnel led to “low levels of performance” when work increased with the closure of centres in Stirling and Glenrothes in early 2015.
It took Lamara’s death to expose a crisis in the system”
Lamara Bell and John Yuill died following a car crash on the M9 in July.
Police took three days to find their vehicle after an initial call from a member of the public was not properly logged at the Midlothian control room.
The HMICS report found “insufficient staff” were available at Bilston Glen between November and April. However, it did not look at the period during which Mr Yuill and Ms Bell lost their lives as a separate investigation is being carried out by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.
The HMICS report also highlighted a number of weaknesses in the roll-out of Police Scotland’s national call-handling model, which includes a reduction in the number of force control rooms.
It found examples of handlers being under pressure to end calls quickly and the grading of calls being dependent on the resources available.
The watchdog said some staff wrote information on notepads rather than inputting it directly into the system.
And it said the police gazateer – a list of all known addresses in Scotland with unique reference numbers – was out of date and inaccurate.
Ms Bell’s family said the HMICS report showed it had taken Lamara’s death to “expose a systemic crisis at the heart of system”.
Derek Penman, HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, said: “Whilst I have been able to provide some key assurances, I have highlighted a number of weaknesses in Police Scotland’s approach to the roll-out of its new national call-handling model.
“This model is a critical element in the delivery of frontline policing and a key part of the bringing together of Police Scotland post-reform.
“The oversight of this project has been inadequate, with key risks and other issues not being identified or highlighted to senior managers. There was an initial focus on meeting deadlines and increased productivity rather than a well-managed project with a focus on customer service, good staff relations and thorough process design.”
The report said there had been a “lack of clarity” around the strategic vision for call-handling, with more focus on meeting deadlines and increasing savings.
While Police Scotland has achieved annual savings of £1.8 million in staff costs, the force has already exceeded its annual overtime budget this year.
The watchdog said improvements were being made, but it called on the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) not to approve further control room closures until it receives independent assurance that Police Scotland is ready.
In a statement released through their solicitor, the father and grandfather of Lamara Bell’s son said: “Of course human error is inevitable, but the fact that Police Scotland does not even have ‘systematic processes for recording adverse incidents or near misses’ suggests a dangerously cavalier approach to such incidents.
“Sadly it took Lamara’s death to expose a systemic crisis at the heart of the call-handling system.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The inspector has uncovered appalling failures including insufficient staff, inadequate oversight, low staff morale and calls being recorded on scribble pads. Police chiefs lost sight of what is important. It took the tragic deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill on the side of the M9 before this report was ordered by the Scottish Government.
“This is a defining moment for the SNPs centralisation agenda. Their handling of Police Scotland has been casual and cavalier, undermining the excellent work of police officers and civilian staff. The Scottish Government should have listened to warnings earlier.”
Scottish Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former senior police officer, added: “This damning report confirms the complete and utter botched job the SNP have made of reforming policing in Scotland.
“The challenge now for SNP Justice Minister Michael Matheson is to fully disclose the problems in our policing service and for him to ensure that the SPA will get a grip. When the M9 tragedy occurred, Michael Matheson said that it had nothing to do with a lack of capacity, a lack of resources, or staff feeling overburdened.
“We now know that to be completely false. He now owes an apology to police staff who have been left to take the blame by the SNP government, the SPA and senior officers.”
In a statement delivered in the Scottish Parliament following publication of the report, Mr Matheson said independent experts would be brought in before the planned closures to control rooms in Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness go ahead.
Mr Matheson said HMICS would also carry out a programme of unannounced visits to control rooms in the coming months. He said: “I want to start by once again offering sincere condolences to the families of John Yuill and Lamara Bell for the tragic loss that they have suffered. In welcoming the assurances provided by HMICS in this report around quality of customer service, call-handling and grading I want to make sure that these standards are maintained and the improvements being implemented by Police Scotland deliver the required improvements. The report also includes some hard messages for Police Scotland and I have been assured that all 30 of the recommendations will be accepted and actioned by them.”
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, of Police Scotland, said: “HMICS has highlighted a number of specific assurances around capacity, capability and processes including staffing levels, training, basic processes, management of high-priority calls, risk assessment and information and communications technology which provide confidence to the public about telephone contact with the police.
“Maintaining the eight previous systems to manage calls was no longer a viable option. Making changes in how we deliver, manage and improve that service for the public is highly complex and the report highlights that. We remain only part of the way through a programme of improvement aimed at delivering a model which will provide continued high levels of service.
She added: “We acknowledge there have been challenges. Today’s report recognises that we have already made progress in addressing these issues to ensure we can further strengthen call-handling. We will now implement the recommendations provided by the HMICS as we go through the next steps of our improvement programme.”
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said the force would continue to struggle while cuts are being made to its budget.
Brian Docherty, SPF chairman, said: “The simple fact is this – police budgets are being cut. With the best will in the world, these cuts will impact on service and no amount of reassurance on one narrow, albeit important area of policing will hide that.”