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Police Scotland accused of 'reckless disregard for public safety' after M9 crash

Published 10/11/2015

John Yuill and Lamara Bell died in the M9 crash in July (Police Scotland/PA Wire)
John Yuill and Lamara Bell died in the M9 crash in July (Police Scotland/PA Wire)

The former partner of M9 crash victim Lamara Bell has accused Police Scotland of a "re ckless disregard for public safety" after a report from watchdogs highlighted "weaknesses" in the force's call handling.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) was charged with carrying out an urgent review of procedures following the death of Ms Bell, 25, and her partner John Yuill, 28, in a car crash on the M9 near Stirling in July.

Police took three days to follow up a reported sighting of their wrecked car.

Mr Yuill died in the crash and although Ms Bell, who had a five-year-old son Kieran Burt, was conscious when officers arrived at the scene she died four days later in hospital.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman said staffing levels at the Bilston Glen contact, command and control centre - where the initial call regarding the fatal crash was received - were insufficient and had resulted in "low levels of performance".

As well as problems with staffing, the report also highlighted concerns regarding the IT system and staff training.

Mr Penman said: "I have highlighted a number of weaknesses in Police Scotland's approach to the roll-out of its new national call handling model.

"This model is a critical element in the delivery of front line policing and a key part of the bringing together of Police Scotland post-reform."

But he added: " The oversight of this project has been inadequate with key risks and other issues not being identified or highlighted to senior managers."

Kieran's father Lee Burt and the boy's grandfather James McMillan said: " Today's report delivers a damning indictment on Police Scotland's call handling processes. Lamara Bell was not an isolated incident, despite what they wanted everyone to believe."

In a statement released by lawyer Aamer Anwar, they added: " It is clear that Police Scotland was not ready for national changes in call handling but went ahead despite concerns for safety and introduced 'unacceptably high levels of pressure' on staff.

"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."

They said Kieran is "at the heart of this tragedy", describing him as boy who "never stops speaking about his mum".

The statement said: " Some mornings he will wake up a happy boy because he dreamt of Lamara, but it is heart-breaking when a little boy tells you he misses his mum and the sound of laughter changes to silence.

" Kieran's family will try their best to fill his life with love but they will never be able to fill the void left by Lamara.

"The family have two primary concerns, the first is that such a catastrophe should never happen again, but second is the question of accountability.

"Police Scotland are guilty of failing communities across Scotland, whilst their approach to the complaints of call handlers can be described as at best 'ad-hoc' and at worst 'shambolic'.

"Lives still remain at risk and if the authorities genuinely care about Kieran's loss and what happened to Lamara, then they must hold to account those in the leadership of Police Scotland who appeared to have had such a reckless disregard for public safety."

While the report was commissioned following the death of Mr Yuill and Ms Bell, it did not consider why police took three days to follow up a reported sighting of their wrecked car.

Instead, it looked more widely at the operation, systems and processes in place within police contact, command and control (C3) centres across Scotland.

Staff in these centres are ''strongly committed, in often challenging circumstances, to providing a good service to the public'', the review stated.

But Mr Penman said P olice Scotland needs to improve workforce planning to ''address previous weaknesses in assessing demand and ensuring that sufficient staff are in place at critical stages".

Although 999 calls are ''answered quickly with a prompt response from officers'', he added: ''The handling of lower priority calls can be affected by a lack of available officers to attend incidents and weak divisional management of these incidents, particularly in the east".

The review said while the IT system being used is ''generally fit for purpose in terms of basic functionality'', there was a common concern among staff about the suitability of some parts of it.

Training for control room staff ''varied greatly in duration, coverage and quality'' in the eight regional forces that were in place before Police Scotland was set up, and Mr Penman said: " Further work is required to develop a comprehensive, nationally-consistent approach."

He also stated there was a ''lack of clarity around the strategic vision for the national C3 model, with no alignment to wider policing strategy''.

The report makes it clear that the Scottish Police Authority should not approve any further stages of the call handing project until it receives independent assurance that Police Scotland is ready.

Its 30 recommendations include the appointment of ''an experienced and qualified programme manager with immediate effect'' to manage the remaining stages of the new call handling model, an urgent review and strengthening of the approach to programme governance, and improved financial management and reporting for the call handling project.

Police Scotland should develop a training strategy for contact, command and control centres ''which is supported by an appropriately skilled and resourced single national training unit''.

In addition the force should promote an ''improvement culture'' where staff are encouraged to report adverse incidents or ''near misses'', and introduce processes as soon as possible where these can be recorded, assessed and any improvement identified and implemented.

Brian Docherty, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said the organisation's concerns are ''substantially borne out'' by the report.

''We have consistently stated that the drive to save money was resulting in an erosion of service and creating intolerable pressures on those working within it,'' he said.

''We have also stated that there is little point answering calls quickly if there are no police officers available to respond to them.

''This report leaves no doubt that this was indeed the case and that our concerns were fully justified.''

Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick said the force would produce a " detailed and comprehensive action plan'' to implement the recommendations.

Ms Fitzpatrick, who is responsible for local policing, said: ''Handling 999 and 101 calls is a key part of our front line policing response. Officers and staff who handle calls from the public across the country are committed to providing the highest level of service possible, often dealing with the most challenging situations.

"I am pleased the report acknowledges the commitment of staff as well as the high quality of service they give the public every day.''

She added: ''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. Today's report recognises that we have already made progress in addressing these issues to ensure we can further strengthen call handling. We will now implement the recommendations provided by the HMICS as we go through the next steps of our improvement programme.

''We have introduced a Call Handling Training Academy for new staff to build up knowledge, skills and learning to allow them to do their critically important jobs to the highest possible standard, and we will now be extending that to our existing staff.

"We are also establishing an Expert Independent Reference Group to advise us as we develop and implement the remaining stages of this complex change programme.''

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