Martyn McLaughlin: M9 crash is Matheson’s biggest test

The performance of Police Scotland's Bilston Glen call-handling centre has come under the microscope. Picture: Julie Bull
The performance of Police Scotland's Bilston Glen call-handling centre has come under the microscope. Picture: Julie Bull
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Honeymoon is well and truly over, writes Martyn McLaughlin, and now minister faces tough questions that need straight answers

Michael Matheson is, by all accounts, a personable man respected by his cabinet colleagues for his grounded approach. Less than ten months have passed since his surprise ascendancy to the justice brief, an appointment that has mainly involved the dutiful annulment of the reckless policies he inherited from his predecessor, Kenny MacAskill. This week, however, promises the first major test of his ministerialship, one he can ill afford to fail.

Michael Matheson faces intense scrutiny when HMICS report is published. Picture: Michael Gillen

Michael Matheson faces intense scrutiny when HMICS report is published. Picture: Michael Gillen

When the HM Inspectorate Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) publishes its report into Police Scotland’s handling of the M9 tragedy which claimed the lives of John Yuill and Lamara Bell after the couple were abandoned in their wrecked car for three days, Mr Matheson will have some explaining to do.

A sizeable minority of staff in the force’s Contact, Command and Control (C3) division have come forward in recent weeks to cite numerous instances of how a system not fit for purpose has jeopardised public safety. One example is a Linlithgow woman who was put through to the Bilston Glen service centre to report she was being attacked by her partner. Instead of being allocated to J division, which covers the Lothians, officers were dispatched from C division in Forth Valley and ended up attending the wrong address in the village of Blackness, nearly five miles away from her home.

Other staff outside of C3 have told HMICS that officers untrained in call handling operations are being asked to deal with medium-grade reports to ease the burden on Bilston Glen and, crucially, massage the waiting time figures at the beleaguered Midlothian resource. More grievances have been aired and it is expected HMICS will make at least one significant recommendation in its inquiry that will have repercussions for an ongoing cost cutting exercise that has eradicated trust in Scotland’s police service and its oversight.

Speculation in the press over the weekend as to the detail of what HMICS will say prompted a reminder from the Scottish Government, with a spokesman stating that it would not be appropriate to “prejudge” the results of the review or an independent investigation by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC).

Mr Matheson himself made similar sounds, insisting that “it would be wrong to jump to conclusions prior to the full report being published”. If only he chose to heed his own advice last month. On 13 July, four days after officers were called for a second time to the crash site and less than 24 hours after he formally directed HMICS to undertake its review, the minister gave a robust defence of call handling standards at the single force.

Citing an internal Police Scotland review, Mr Matheson said that “they have looked at the process they have in place” and that “there is nothing that has actually been highlighted to them that would suggest a systemic failure in the way they in which are dealing with cases”.

He added: “It looks as though there has been an error made in this individual case which has then not been explained why that is the case… there is no indication of any particular failure within their call handling system.”

The body of evidence submitted to HMICS suggests this is a nonsense. When the report sees the light of day, questions should be asked of Police Scotland and its outgoing chief constable, Sir Stephen House, for implying this was an isolated case that was the fault of an individual. But Mr Matheson and his apparently preternatural self-assurance must also come under the microscope.

It is right that there should not be political interference in the operations of the police, yet the extent of the failings highlighted at Police Scotland in recent months means its high command simply cannot be trusted, especially when the C3 failings in the lead up to the tragedy made a mockery of such claims and Mr Matheson’s blithe acceptance of them.

As far back as March, it emerged that it was taking up 58 minutes for some calls to be answered at Bilston Glen, with 11 call handlers off sick at one stage. Police Scotland initially dismissed the claim only for it to turn out to be accurate. A month on, the force set up what it described as “wellbeing clinics” for its C3 staff who were struggling to cope with high numbers of vacancies and significant changes to shifts.

Lucille Inglis, the Unison convenor for Police Scotland staff in the east of Scotland, said at the time: “It’s just glorified telephony before the call is passed on. Our sickness levels have gone up and there have been people who have just resigned because they are struggling to cope.”

Were there any remaining doubt about the inefficacy of Police Scotland’s call-handling procedures, a report to last week’s meeting of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) demonstrated that the problems with capacity and capability at Bilston Glen are persistent.

During July, the centre took as long as seven minutes and seven seconds to answer non emergency calls. One 101 call took 15 minutes and 53 seconds, blamed by the force on an IT “glitch” which suggested the caller was still ringing when they had in fact hung up. Staff had to work 1,899 hours of overtime in order to maintain the service at a time when 11 police officers and 16 other employees were off sick.

Assistant Chief Constable Val Thomson, one of the force’s most senior officers who has already seen the HMICS findings, told the SPA there was one underlying cause for the difficulties. “It is apparent that staffing levels were not sufficient at Bilston when the workload from Stirling and Glenrothes was moved across,” she stated.

If Mr Matheson does not believe this to be evidence of systemic failure, he has a higher threshold for institutional incompetence than most. It is time for him to demonstrate the scrutiny his ministerial office demands.