Chris Marshall: Report is a blow for Police Scotland

Failure to log a call from a member of the public meant officers took three days to find Mr Yuill and Ms Bell. Picture: PA
Failure to log a call from a member of the public meant officers took three days to find Mr Yuill and Ms Bell. Picture: PA
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Despite being largely free of the incendiary language journalists crave, a report delivered yesterday by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland nonetheless managed to stick the boot into Police Scotland.

The review of call-handling was carried out at the request of the Scottish Government following the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell in a crash on the M9 in July. Failure to log a call from a member of the public meant officers took three days to find the couple’s vehicle, by which time Mr Yuill was dead. Ms Bell died later in hospital.

Diplomatic though the language was, the report identified Police Scotland’s failure to properly plan and manage the roll-out of a new national approach to call handling, which includes the controversial closure of control rooms across the country. It called for the closures to be halted until the Scottish Police Authority receives independent assurance that Police Scotland is ready.

The review found examples of handlers being put under pressure to end calls quickly, as well as staff writing down information on notepads rather than inputting it directly into the computer system.

Incredibly, the police gazetteer – a list of all known addresses in Scotland with unique reference numbers – was found to be inaccurate.

But on the crucial question of what happened in the case of Mr Yuill and Ms Bell, we are no closer to knowing the truth.

A separate investigation is currently being carried out into the incident by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc).

As a result, HMICS said it had not looked into the issue of staffing at the Bilston Glen control room in Midlothian around the time of the incident.

Nor did it look at the issue of police officers being drafted in to cover, possibly without receiving the necessary training.

What we do know, however, is that the Scottish Government failed to heed warnings about Bilston Glen when it had the chance.

For months before the tragic deaths of Mr Yuill and Ms Bell, MSPs and media reports warned that staff at the Midlothian control room were under pressure.

Making a statement in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, justice secretary Michael Matheson said he took the warnings seriously, raising them with senior officers within Police Scotland.

There is no reason to doubt Mr Matheson, but why did it take two deaths for him to instruct the police watchdog to look at the issue?

His announcement yesterday that HMICS will carry out a series of unannounced inspections at Police Scotland control rooms is welcome, but it should have been done months ago.

Among the inevitable political point-scoring yesterday, the Scottish Police Federation took a more considered view.

The body, which represents rank and file officers, said the drive to save money at Police Scotland was resulting in an “erosion of service” and creating “intolerable pressures” for staff.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, the SPF’s general secretary, Calum Steele, said he would applaud any politician who had the “cojones” to tell it like it really is – that police funding is being cut and the service the public receives will inevitably change.

We won’t know the full details of the M9 crash until the Pirc’s investigation is published. Even then, we may never know if a quicker intervention from the police would have saved lives.

But in this period of police austerity we have no assurances that something similar won’t happen again.