10% absence rate at couple crash row police call centre
The police call centre which was contacted about a couple who had crashed off the M9 three days before they were discovered had a 10% absence rate a month before the incident, it has emerged.
The Scottish Conservatives, who uncovered the figures, described the situation at Police Scotland's east service centre in June as "completely unacceptable".
Lamara Bell, 25, and her boyfriend John Yuill, 28, were involved in a crash off the M9 near Stirling on Sunday July 5.
The incident was reported that day via a 101 call to police from a member of the public, but the message was not logged in the system and no action was taken at the time.
The pair were only discovered in the car three days later, on Wednesday July 8, after police received a further call to the scene.
Mr Yuill was found dead inside the blue Renault Clio. Ms Bell, who was discovered alive but critically ill, died in hospital a week on from the crash.
Police Scotland said it "works hard to ensure sickness absence does not have a detrimental effect on performance" and that the absence rate in the centre today is 4.5%.
An independent investigation is under way and a review of all police call handling is being carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS). Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House has faced calls to resign.
Figures contained in a Scottish Police Authority report from last month show that in the force's service centres - which handle non-emergency 101 calls - there were 36 members of staff absent as of mid-June.
That included 15 absent from the east centre at Bilston Glen, Midlothian, which is understood to have taken the call about the crash. The 15 absences, recorded on June 11, equated to an absence rate of 10.6%.
Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Val Thomson said: "The number of staff on sick leave varies from day to day and managers work hard to ensure sickness absence does not have a detrimental effect on performance.
"Today at Bilston the absence rate is only 4.5%. This is consistent with the absence rate across the division and throughout the country. Absence rates are in fact reducing.
"Resource management across Contact, Command and Control Division is calculated to include resilience around absence and, where necessary, we are able to support staffing levels through other means to ensure Police Scotland service centres and control rooms are resourced appropriately."
She added: "Attendance is of paramount important to Police Scotland. Officers and staff have access to wide range of support, advice and guidance. Police Scotland also has an attendance management policy which supports managers to proactively manage absence."
Figures in the report also show that staff in the call centres had worked more than 8,300 hours in overtime from the start of April to "mitigate" the impact of staff vacancies.
Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: "This is a deeply distressing tragedy, all the more so because the warning signs that emerged months ago were completely ignored by the Scottish Government.
"A 10% absence rate is completely unacceptable in a high pressure environment where people's lives depend on calls being handled quickly and efficiently.
"Service centre staff are already overburdened from excessive centralisation, but the sheer number of vacancies and lost adviser hours are only putting them under more strain.
"The buck stops with the Scottish Government on this and the public will no doubt wonder why it is constantly on the back foot with Police Scotland."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also voiced concerns and said it underlined the need for a "wider review into the operations of Police Scotland".
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "An action plan was put in place in April by Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) to address recruitment and absence rates and as a result rates are improving.
"Action continues to be taken and the Scottish Government receives regular monitoring and assurance reports from the SPA."