A damning report into Police Scotland’s call handling procedures has found the force had “inadequate” oversight of controversial changes to its control rooms.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) had been asked to carry out a review by the Scottish Government following the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell in a crash on the M9 in July.
Police took three days to find the couple’s car after failing properly to log a call from a member of the public.
Ms Bell was still alive when officers arrived, but died later in hospital.
The HMICS report highlighted a number of weaknesses in the roll-out of Police Scotland’s national call handling model, which includes a reduction in the number of force control rooms.
It also found examples of handlers being under pressure to end calls quickly and the grading of calls being dependent on the resources available.
The watchdog said some staff wrote down information from callers on notepads rather than inputting it directly into the system.
And it said the police gazetteer – a list of all known addresses in Scotland with unique reference numbers – was out of date and inaccurate.
Staffing levels at Bilston Glen – the Midlothian control room which took the call about the M9 crash – had initially been “insufficient”, leading to “poor call handling performance”.
Crucially, however, the report did not look at staffing during the time of the incident, a task which has fallen to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc), which is carrying out a separate investigation.
Ms Bell’s family said the HMICS report showed it had taken her death to “expose a systemic crisis at the heart of system”.
Mr Penman, HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, said: “Whilst I have been able to provide some key assurances, I have highlighted a number of weaknesses in Police Scotland’s approach to the roll-out of its new national call handling model.
“The oversight of this project has been inadequate, with key risks and other issues not being identified or highlighted to senior managers. There was an initial focus on meeting deadlines and increased productivity rather than a well-managed project with a focus on customer service, good staff relations and thorough process design.”
The report said there had been a “lack of clarity” around the strategic vision for call handling.
While Police Scotland has achieved annual savings of £1.8 million in staff costs, the force has already exceeded its annual overtime budget this year due to drafting in extra cover for the control rooms.
The watchdog said improvements were being made, but it called on the Scottish Police Authority not to approve further control room closures until it receives independent assurance that Police Scotland is ready.
In a statement released through their lawyer, the father and grandfather of Lamara Bell’s son said: “Of course human error is inevitable, but the fact that Police Scotland does not even have ‘systematic processes for recording adverse incidents or near misses’ suggests a dangerously cavalier approach to such incidents. Sadly it took Lamara’s death to expose a systemic crisis at the heart of the call handling system.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “It took the tragic deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill on the side of the M9 before this report was ordered by the Scottish Government. This is a defining moment for the SNP’s centralisation agenda. Their handling of Police Scotland has been casual and cavalier, undermining the excellent work of police officers and civilian staff.
“The Scottish Government should have listened to warnings earlier.”
Scottish Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former senior police officer, added: “This damning report confirms the complete and utter botched job the SNP have made of reforming policing in Scotland.
“The challenge now for SNP justice minister Michael Matheson is to fully disclose the problems in our policing service and for him to ensure that the SPA will get a grip.
“When the M9 tragedy occurred, Michael Matheson said that it had nothing to do with a lack of capacity, a lack of resources, or staff feeling overburdened. We now know that to be completely false.”
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament following publication of the report, Mr Matheson said independent experts would be brought in to monitor the planned closure of control rooms in Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness.
Mr Matheson said HMICS would also carry out a programme of unannounced visits to control rooms.
He said: “I want to start by once again offering sincere condolences to the families of John Yuill and Lamara Bell for the tragic loss that they have suffered.
“In welcoming the assurances provided by HMICS in this report around quality of customer service, call handling and grading I want to make sure that these standards are maintained the improvements being implemented by Police Scotland deliver the required improvements.”
Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, of Police Scotland, said: “Maintaining the eight previous systems to manage calls was no longer a viable option. Making changes in how we deliver, manage and improve that service for the public is highly complex and the report highlights that. We remain only part of the way through a programme of improvement aimed at delivering a model which will provide continued high levels of service.
“We acknowledge there have been challenges. [This] report recognises that we have already made progress in addressing these issues.”