Leaders: Only one course open to man responsible for this tragedy

Brian Sweeney poses with the Queen's Fire Service Medal. Picture: PA
Brian Sweeney poses with the Queen's Fire Service Medal. Picture: PA
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THE more we know about the death of lawyer Alison Hume, who lost her battle for life after firefighters were ordered not to rescue her from a mineshaft in Ayrshire, the more the scandalous abrogation of duty at the top of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue becomes apparent

A fatal accident inquiry last year ruled Ms Hume might have lived if firefighters had acted sooner rather than hesitating while considering health and safety implications.

Yesterday a second inquiry, by Scotland’s HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Authorities, was even more damning. It set out in horrifying detail the pedantry and bureaucracy which effectively condemned Mrs Hume to die. The watch commander who arrived at the scene with a fire crew began attempts to lift her out of the shaft, after carrying out a risk assessment but he was over-ruled by a more senior officer who was then replaced by a third.

After that, another more senior commander also arrived. A mountain rescue team was called but they arrived too late.

It is worth quoting from the inspector, Steven Torrie’s, report to comprehend the folly of those in charge of this operation. It says: “Successful rescue was not guaranteed – but was much more likely if the rescue had been carried out reasonably quickly. And in relation to that, there was an insufficient and inexplicable lack of focus on the need for a speedy recover from fire and rescue operational commanders.” Inexplicable is one word for it. Yet until now no-one has taken responsibility for this shocking failure of leadership.

Last night Mrs Hume’s stepfather, Hugh Cowan, laid the blame firmly at the door of Brian Sweeney, Strathclyde’s Fire and Rescue’s chief officer. The buck stopped with him he said. Mr Sweeney was, ultimately, in charge. Mr Sweeney, hailed as a hero after taking charge of the Stockline fire has previously issued a half-hearted apology to the relatives. Yesterday he reiterated that and claimed the fire service had done everything to ensure a similar tragedy would never happen again. He added the only consolation was “lives will undoubtedly be saved in the future as a result of the lessons learned from these tragic events”.

From a man who left the Strathclyde service with a substantial pay-off, only to be immediately re-employed and in line to run the new all-Scotland fire service, this is patronisingly inadequate. Mr Sweeney is clearly part of the modern public service culture in which no-one takes responsibility for their actions, everyone has an excuse for inaction and no-one ever takes the blame. Mr Cowan is right. The buck does stop with Mr Sweeney. He was ultimately responsible for the culture which put the rules and regulations which led to Mrs Hume’s life being lost above the instinct of firefighters to risk their lives to save her. In the wake of this report he should do the honourable thing. If he does not, his political masters should do it for him.

Man the pumps advice a mistake

If you weren’t panic-buying petrol already, the government has now given us all a nod to form an orderly queue. In the words of the Energy Secretary Ed Davey, “just do the sensible thing … get a full tank, not a half tank”. Considering that a strike has not yet been called and that the Unite union is obliged to give seven days’ notice, this seems to be a case of panic buying for no other reason than that everyone else is panicking. If the Unite union wanted to get its grievances on minimum working conditions and training across to a wide public, it could hardly have wished for a more helpful government response. Indeed, the greater the panic at forecourts, the less need to call a strike to create the very disruption now widely evident.

Sales of petrol are said to have shot up by 81 per cent on Wednesday, with diesel sales up by 43 per cent. A spokesman for the AA summed up the chaos perfectly. “If drivers followed normal fuel-buying patterns, there would be no fuel shortage whatsoever. We now have self-inflicted shortages due to poor advice about topping up the tank and hoarding in jerrycans.”

Acas, the conciliation service, says it hopes to set up talks by Monday, thus making industrial action over Easter unlikely. Motorists have cause to fume at how just 2,000 relatively well-paid drivers can cause such mayhem simply by the threat of strike action.

But statements by ministers, some retracted after the damage was done, have made the headlines and added mightily to the public confusion and apprehension. It would surely have been better had ministers said nothing and concentrated instead on getting the Acas talks under way.

Cold wind of reality chills dream of Shetland haven

Yet again, Shetland has topped a poll for healthy living – this time judged to have the best quality of life of any rural area in Scotland. The conclusions are drawn from a Bank of Scotland rural areas quality of life survey, remarkably close to a similar BoS survey in December.

Does the bank have a cunning plan? The latest survey is drawn from analysis of health quality, life expectancy, education, employment and crime rates. Employment rates are the highest in Scotland at close to 84 per cent and average weekly earnings at £605 are around £30 above the Scottish average.

But this begs an obvious question: if life in the Shetland Isles is so wonderful, why is much of it so sparse and uninhabited? It could, of course, do as some suggest – go independent of Scotland as well as the UK and snaffle a large chunk of North Sea oil revenues. In addition, it could follow the Cayman Islands which has just launched a special enterprise zone offering a waiving of import duties, exemption from work permits, 100 per cent exemption from income tax, 100 per cent exemption from Capital Gains Tax, 100 per cent exemption from corporate taxes and 100 per cent repatriation of capital and profits.

The population might soar, fund managers would be falling over themselves to set up in Lerwick, brass-plate manufacture would rocket – but unlike the Caymans it would still be treeless, chilly and pitch black in winter.