Lesley Riddoch: M9 crash deaths demand action

Police near the scene of the tragic accident that has put Police Scotland and its boss in the spotlight. Picture: Michael Gillen
Police near the scene of the tragic accident that has put Police Scotland and its boss in the spotlight. Picture: Michael Gillen
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THE tragedy of a couple who lay in a crashed car for days asks wider questions of the police, writes Lesley Riddoch

Was the M9 scandal a tragic but isolated example of human error? The death of Lamara Bell renders such an explanation completely inadequate. The mother of two was left stranded in a crashed car on the M9 near Stirling for three days after the incident was first reported to police. A prompt response would not have saved her boyfriend, John Yuill, who appears to have been killed at the time of impact, but might have helped Lamara – we cannot be certain.

A member of the public used the 101 non-emergency number to report seeing a car down an embankment. That call was apparently taken by an “experienced officer” but “for reasons yet to be established” it was not entered into systems or sent out to local operational teams, even though a missing persons appeal was issued. That left the critically injured woman lying beside her dead boyfriend for three long days. How was this possible? Rumours and opinions abound on social media. Some say Police Scotland’s controversial centralised control structure is to blame. Incidents across the whole of Scotland have been handled by just three centres in Glasgow, Bilston Glen and Dundee since the launch of the single Police Scotland force in 2013 – and there are rumours Dundee, covering the whole of Northern Scotland, is facing closure.

Problems highlighted by police unions focus on the distant, one-way and automated nature of the operation – so complex that it’s been suggested the “experienced officer” may have jotted down details on paper for an administrative officer to input later, but that never happened.

Rank-and-file police complain there is now no relationship between patrols and controllers. Police can’t actually call for more information – and in some areas vital background information about previous problems or convictions is “inaccessible” to call centre staff, making it harder for patrols to stay safe or prioritise calls.

There’s also less support from the control rooms – police at an incident can end up having to deal with the public and call 999 for an ambulance or ring round to find space in a local custody centre. All call centres can do these days is pass on calls or let local patrols know there are calls waiting. In the recent past, they did so much more.

One source has suggested 60 officers have resigned in the past two years – a level of attrition unheard of in a profession where careers generally end in retirement, injury or (very occasionally) death.

Does that constitute a case for bringing back local control rooms? Yes it does.

Supporters of the single force say the extra cost of creating 32 call rooms – one per council – would result in fewer police. But numbers cannot dip beneath 17,295 – or 1,000 officers above the 2007 figure agreed by the minority SNP government as the price of Conservative support.

In any case, members of the public are already complaining that some local stations are effectively shut – because police must cover duties previously carried out by the 2,000 civilian staff made redundant when the new system began.

If these complaints are true, the whole restructuring of police under Sir Stephen House has been a failure and Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie is right to call for a wider inquiry than the incident investigation already under way.

Sir Stephen has said the mistake arose from an “individual failure”. But the question Scots urgently want answered is whether that “individual failure” arose from an impossibly bureaucratic, centralised, chaos-inducing and computerised approach to police work. That surely demands an inquiry into the whole operation of Scotland’s single police force. Does it also demand that Sir Stephen quits? In April, Angela Wilson, former assistant chief constable of Tayside Police, called on him to resign “for the good of the service”, saying she retired three years early because of Sir Stephen’s regime – which brought Met-style policing to Scotland, with armed officers and apparently random stop and search. Ms Wilson said: “[House] has a saying, ‘You’re either on his bus or you’re under it’. What’s happened is anybody who’s not been 100 per cent on that bus has found themselves marginalised [or] encouraged to leave the force.” These claims were simply denied.

Of course, there’s another side of the coin. The decision to amalgamate eight police forces into one national force was based on systems that work well in the Nordic countries. But central administrations there are underpinned by active, powerful and ultra-local democracy. The Norwegians have 431 councils against our 32 for roughly the same population. The Swedes had a 85 per cent turnout at their last local elections compared to a miserable 38 per cent in Scotland.

Nordic central institutions are accountable to the demands of powerful tax-collecting councils the size of towns like Dalkeith or Girvan. Sadly, such muscular local democracy – a vital check on central institutions like Police Scotland – is simply missing here.

Police Scotland and the Scottish Government point out recorded crime in Scotland is at a 40-year low. But critics say ministers have downgraded serious crimes to “offences” so they disappear from annual totals. And according to Reform Scotland, the “clear-up” rate has fallen by 30 per cent over the last seven years despite rising police numbers. It’s true that individual tragedies happen in every system. Who knows how many old people lie alone for days after a fall, caught between health and social services? Who knows precisely how many families are anxious and hungry today because of benefit payment delays and sanctions? It’s true that Police Scotland’s swift decision to admit its mistake has allowed all of this to be debated.

And yet sometimes an individual tragedy serves as a focus for undercurrents of hopelessly inefficient systems and consequent poor performance, hidden by staff lest they lose their jobs or get labelled troublemakers.

The sad, lonely deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell must be a wake-up call. The Scottish Government must set up a wider inquiry and lift the ban on criticism of Police Scotland by serving officers to let them give evidence.

There is no other way to restore public faith and officer morale and provide some tiny shreds of solace for the families of this tragic couple.