Johnstone’s View - Scottish Govt needs to finally listen

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The furore over the decision to close the Police control room in Aberdeen looks set to drag on with the announcement that it will not close for a further six months.

Although some might see this as a partial victory for common sense, I am afraid it simply represents a stay of execution.

The Scottish Government’s scorched earth policy when it comes to policing and justice has been fraught with bad judgment calls. These have been followed by ignoring expert opinion, and then the consequences invariably becoming increasingly clear.

When the then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill embarked on his spree of shutting down courthouses across Scotland, he and his Scottish Government colleagues were warned in no uncertain terms that it would have severe impacts on the delivery of local justice. The effect of closing the Stonehaven court unfortunately gives us a prime example.

So now it is the turn of the Police control rooms to face the axe, including the one in nearby Aberdeen. The proposal is to switch the call handling services for routine 101 and 999 emergency calls from the Aberdeen centre to the rather bizarrely titled ‘National Virtual Service Centre’ and the Dundee Regional Control Room.

The process so far has been fraught with difficulties. The call handling capabilities of the new single police force in Scotland was criticised in a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary contained no fewer than thirty recommendations for improvement.

The report stated officers were often resorting to “scribble pads” instead of logging call information on the computer system, and that police officers were continuing to fill vacancies in centres.

When the service moved into Bilston Glen there were “insufficient staff available”, inspectors added, and there was no formal system within Police Scotland for recording near misses.

Other findings included that “governance of the change process has been weak with key risks and project issues not being highlighted through existing structures” and that the merger programme “focused on meeting deadlines and increasing productivity and savings at the expense of effective staff engagement”.

While Police Scotland did achieve £1.8 million in staff savings, the report states, the force has still had to increase overtime costs to cover shortages.

The report itself came in for criticism for its use of David Brent style ‘management speak’.

One recommendation suggested “Police Scotland should strengthen its commitment towards programme and project management and the management of cultural change. It should mainstream its improvement approach into existing project and ‘business as usual’ planning and review its use of Gold Groups.”

Worryingly, another recommendation was that “Police Scotland should review the use of ad hoc ‘scribble pads’ by service advisors within C3 Division and provide definitive guidance on their use, issue and proportionate supervision.”

The use of ‘scribble pads’ is one thing, but even they are no use if the whole system goes into meltdown and people cannot actually call for help. What was described as a technical difficulty at the call centre in Bilston Glen meant that both 101 and 999 calls were diverted elsewhere.

Tragically, what has highlighted the failings of this transition most is the failure of the police to investigate a call which reported a car which had crashed off the road on the M9.

The message was not logged on the system and no action was taken. Three days later, the car was discovered after another call was made, but by then one occupant, John Yuill had already died, and the other occupant died later in hospital.

It is clear that there is much to do to restore confidence in the system. We know for example that ambulance and other emergency services can face extra challenges getting to incidents in rural areas.

When the call centre receives a call, it is, in my view, hugely beneficial if the handler has some local knowledge of the geographical area so that they are best able to get more information from the caller which could assist the emergency services get there faster.

I am absolutely certain that even with the best will in the world, and using the best technology available, there is absolutely no substitute for having a local call centre dealing with local emergencies.

I am absolutely sure that I am not the only person who has called the police about an incident and given them the exact street address to which I am referring, only to be asked, “And which town is that?”. Perhaps that is only the tip of the iceberg. There may be much worse to come.

The Scottish Government needs to finally listen to those who do not live in their own private echo chamber and rethink these cuts.