Leaders: Inquiry must get to heart of M9 tragedy

M9 crash victims John Yuill (left) and Lamara Bell (right). Picture: PA
M9 crash victims John Yuill (left) and Lamara Bell (right). Picture: PA
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A SCOTTISH Government-ordered inquiry by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland now rightly follows the tragic death of 25-year-old Lamara Bell, discovered critically ill in a crashed car on the M9 fully three days after police were alerted.

An urgent review of all police call-handling in Scotland is vital, for what has unfolded in this case is nothing short of lamentable. Even before this inquiry gets under way, there can be little doubt that the most serious – and tragic – lapses have been exposed in police call-handling procedures. Ms Bell had been in a medically induced coma in hospital, having suffered kidney damage from dehydration from lying in the wreckage for so long. Her partner in the car, John Yuill, is thought to have died instantly.

Chief Constable Sir Stephen House said last week that the call to police had been taken by an “experienced officer”, who has since remained on duty, but that, “for reasons yet to be established” this was never entered into systems or sent out to operational teams in the area.

The investigation will focus on all call-handling procedures and will be in addition to the ongoing independent inquiry specifically into the M9 incident by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.

The couple had first been reported missing after their car was seen on the southern road of Loch Earn. The inquiry will also examine the robustness of Police Scotland’s missing person inquiry and look at why it was not linked with the information received in the call, while examining police procedures used to log this particular call made from a member of the public.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson says this will be a “thorough and speedy review that will help to ensure that the people of Scotland can have full confidence in this vital public service”.

As well he might. The ability of police to respond with speed and professionalism to incoming calls reporting accidents is a critical requirement for public wellbeing and safety. As such, the call-logging and reporting system needs to be beyond reproach. The lame explanation offered by Sir Stephen thus far, giving only the most scant details of what happened inside the call centre, begs searching questions about the governance and reporting systems there and a grievous lack of supervision.

A related but no less critical feature is the apparent failure to connect the missing person report to the call alerting them to the crashed car near Stirling.

Deepest apologies and sincere regrets have been expressed. But this cannot be enough. Nor should this investigation revert to the tired, evasive conclusions of “lessons will be learnt”. This investigation must go to the heart of this tragedy, what happened and why. And it must establish a firm line of responsibility for a failure that has had so tragic an outcome and deeply damaged the public standing of Police Scotland. Let us hope delays on this occasion will be kept to a minimum.

Lib Dems playing the blame game

There is a familiar Scottish ring to Nick Clegg’s explanation as to why the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed and its representation at Westminster was slashed from 57 to just eight MPs: “It wisnae me – a big boy done it and ran away.”

There may well be an element of truth in his assertion that the spectre of an Ed Miliband Labour administration propped up by Alex Salmond in the Commons had “chilled the English heart”. It certainly feared it would be picking up the lion’s share of the bill for more public spending. And it did little for the Lib Dem cause in Scotland, with the party’s Scottish representation reduced to just one MP.

The attempt by Nick Clegg to blame everyone but the Lib Dems for this dramatic collapse cannot serve as anything like a full explanation of his party’s debacle. A major contributor was the blatant breaking of the Lib Dem promise on tuition fees. Another was the party’s inability or reluctance to address widespread voter concerns in England over immigration.

These added considerably to a sulphurous mood of distrust among voters after five years of a coalition and a keen desire for a fresh approach. Ukip benefited from this mood in England while the SNP took dozens of traditional Labour seats to achieve a stunning victory across Scotland. That it was widely perceived to offer Scotland a more vigorous and effective representation cannot be lightly dismissed as “invidious nationalism”.

This loss of voter trust in “politics as usual” presents the Liberal Democrats with as much opportunity as challenge. It has a long history of being a radical party, offering alternative solutions to the consensus. A more thoughtful assessment is needed of its failure in May and of where it now goes from here.