Police control room fears ignored

The Bilston Glen centre. Picture: Julie Bull

The Bilston Glen centre. Picture: Julie Bull

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WARNING signs of problems in the police control room at the centre of the M9 crash fiasco were ignored for months, it has been claimed.

More than one in ten staff members were on sick leave last month at the Bilston Glen service centre in Midlothian, which took the call from a member of the public reporting a car off the road near Stirling – a report which police then failed to follow up.

Chief Constable Sir Stephen House has already admitted Police Scotland failed the families of John Yuill, 28, and Lamara Bell, 25, who lay undiscovered in the wrecked car for three days. Mr Yuill was dead when police eventually attended the scene after a second call and Ms Bell died in hospital four days later.

Police Scotland was unable to say how many staff were absent on the day the first call was received. But a report to the Scottish Police Authority last month said in mid-June there were ten police officers and 15 police staff off sick at the Bilston call centre, an absence level of over ten per cent.

The report also revealed that across the three control rooms covering the whole of Scotland, approximately 8395 hours of overtime had been worked since April 2015.

Concerns were voiced earlier this year over delays in answering calls to the Bilston centre, with Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie claiming one caller waited 58 minutes.

And in April, the Evening News revealed police had set up “wellbeing clinics” for staff left stressed by the centralisation policy which saw several control rooms closed.

Linking the problems to the failures over the fatal crash, Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “This is a deeply distressing tragedy, all the more so because the warning signs that emerged months ago were completely ignored by the 
Scottish Government. A ten per cent absence rate is completely unacceptable in a high-pressure environment where people’s lives depend on calls being handled quickly and efficiently.

“Service centre staff are already overburdened from excessive centralisation, but the number of vacancies and lost advisor hours are only putting them under more strain.

“The buck stops with the Scottish Government on this and the public will no doubt wonder why it is constantly on the back foot with Police 
Scotland.”

Lothian Green MSP Alison Johnstone voiced alarm last month at figures showing dozens of calls to the Bilston control room were abandoned every week as people gave up waiting for assistance. But the chief constable said the standard of service was “first class”. He claimed there had been “scaremongering by figures around Scotland” and said the level of dedication among service centre staff was 
“stupendous”.

Responding to the latest 
criticism, Assistant Chief Constable Val Thomson said: “The number of staff required to respond to the expected demand from the public is managed through careful consideration of a number of different issues, one of which is the anticipated absence levels.

“The number of staff on sick leave varies from day to day and managers work hard to ensure that sickness absence does not have a detrimental effect on 
performance.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Police Authority said it had been undertaking weekly assessment of call handling performance for a number of months and found a “steadily improving picture” with additional resources being put in to help match resources to demand.

And a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “An Action Plan was put in place in April by Police Scotland and the SPA to address recruitment and absence rates and as a result rates are improving.

“Action continues to be taken and the Scottish Government receives regular monitoring and assurance reports from the SPA.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com