John McLellan: Health-and-safety stops people from doing right thing

Alison Hume, 44, of Galston, Ayrshire, died after she was fatally injured down a disused mine. Firefighters were prevented from going to her rescue for hours by health and safety rules.
Alison Hume, 44, of Galston, Ayrshire, died after she was fatally injured down a disused mine. Firefighters were prevented from going to her rescue for hours by health and safety rules.
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A series of calls into Craigmillar Police station last weekend told a disturbing story: elderly residents in a sheltered housing alleged they were being threatened by a drunken neighbour and something had to be done.

Such were the claims that an arrest was almost inevitable, but there was a complication; the suspect was wheelchair-bound and there are strict guidelines for dealing with disabled people.

The arrested man couldn’t simply be bundled into the back of a police van and driven to the station but would have to be transported in a vehicle suitably equipped and insured to carry a disabled passenger. The officers would have to order a taxi.

This was the scenario facing officers Matt McPherson and David Love on what was until then an unremarkable shift, apart from the fact they had been joined for the afternoon by a city councillor, me, taking up a standing invitation to all councillors to see the force in action.

READ MORE: Edinburgh pays more, gets less on policing than rest of Scotland

A spin around the area earlier in the afternoon involved calling in on a convenience store where the shopkeepers had CCTV footage which they felt was evidence of some local trouble-makers planning a break-in. Not enough to warrant immediate action, but sufficient to justify a visit from the local beat officers and a quiet word that their cards were being marked.

There was also some friendly advice to an impatient motorist who didn’t realise the little cream-coloured run-around sticking rigidly to the 20mph speed limit he overtook on Northfield Broadway was in fact an unmarked police car.

When more information about the allegations about the disabled man came in, it was back to Craigmillar for a proper assessment of the situation, to take instruction from higher up the chain of command and to pick up a marked van now returned from an earlier patrol.

The decision duly taken to arrest, St Leonard’s was called to ensure they could take someone in a wheelchair. We arrived at the address, spoke to neighbours and found the window and door of the chap’s flat wide-open with him fast asleep on the sofa. With exemplary patience, PC McPherson explained why we were there, that there had been complaints, that he’d need to go to the station but he couldn’t go in the van and would need to wait for a taxi.

The chap protested his innocence but presented no difficulties to the officers, understood he was being arrested, had no objection to going to St Leonard’s, but couldn’t understand the need for a taxi. “C’mon, I’ll get in the van,” he said repeatedly.

There were actually two police vehicles at the scene, a car and a van, but neither was permitted to take the man to the station. The officers were perfectly willing, the suspect was willing, the wheels were willing, but the rules said taxi. Half an hour or so later the cab finally arrived and off he went. I don’t think Kevin the driver was expecting much of a tip.

Okay, so this is not exactly a regular occurrence, but it is an illustration of an approach which might look reasonable on paper but in reality is somewhat different. This end of the health-and-safety scale had an element of tragi-comic farce, but at the other end is the pure tragedy of the disastrous Galston mineshaft rescue in which lawyer Alison Hume died after willing firefighters were prevented from intervening for hours by their bosses’ strict adherence to the rules.

READ MORE: Alison Hume family fury at fire chief’s new role

Line-managers can’t be held entirely to blame, or the police and rescue services regarded as in any way unique, because at the very top of modern organisations, including newspapers, is a culture of reputation protection which disempowers good people and prevents the right thing being done for fear of legal repercussions.

Details have been withheld due to legal reporting restrictions.

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