Questions Over 999 Call Handling

9 November 2017, 15:12 | Updated: 9 November 2017, 15:14

Ruth Davidson Scottish Conservative leader

Two hundred emergency calls to Police Scotland have "gone unheeded" in the last year, Tory leader Ruth Davidson has claimed, as she told how officers had not been deployed to incidents or had been sent to the wrong town.

Ms Davidson said such cases included a suicidal caller being told to "hang up", while no officers were dispatched to help a couple who rang 999 when their front door was "being kicked in".

She challenged First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the issue after a report by the independent  Police Investigations & Review Commissioner found a number of failings in the way police dealt with a 999 call from a domestic abuse victim.

Elizabeth Bowe, 50, called for help on September 17 2016 but Police Scotland took almost 90 minutes to respond.

When they did they found her seriously injured in her St Andrews home, and she later died.

Her brother Gordon Bowe, 52, was jailed for life in July at the High Court in Glasgow after being found guilty of strangling his sister.

Ms Davidson told the SNP leader: "This is not an isolated incident and the question people are asking is this, how many more times will a call for help go unheeded before the situation in our emergency control rooms is sorted out?"

Raising the issue at First Minister's Questions, she said there were "200 incidents from the last year that we have uncovered" where police had failed to respond appropriately.

She said: "In one case a suicidal man was told to hang up. In another two separate call handlers failed to record a report of a dead body in a house.

"In another, a couple rang 999 to report their front door was being kicked in, they didn't get any help because firstly the wrong address was written down and secondly police officers weren't even dispatched.

"That is the reality of what is happening right now."

Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Conservative leader "significant improvements" in call handling had been made by Police Scotland.

But Ms Davidson said: "This isn't an issue that has been resolved, it is still ongoing."

She said MSPs had been "promised" the reduction in the number of police control rooms would not result in a loss of local knowledge.

Ms Davidson went on: "So let me read some more cases from this year. A woman threatened by her ex-partner who didn't get a response from police because they were sent to the wrong address.

"A man threatened with a knife where police were sent to the right flat in the right street but in the wrong town.

"A caller who rang as their mother and their niece were being assaulted and again police were sent to the wrong location."

Ms Sturgeon, who expressed her "heartfelt thoughts and sympathies" to the family of Ms Bowe, said that each of the cases cited was "serious and unacceptable".

But she told MSPs:  "I do think it is important also to put the situation into context. Ruth Davidson cites 200 incidents - as I say completely unacceptable - but Police Scotland handle 2.6 million calls every year."

She added: "I am very clear that one of the incidents of the type Ruth Davidson has cited here today is one too many and lessons must be learned from all of these incidents.

"But I also think we need to recognise the number of calls that are handled and use that as context, and also to recognise the significant improvements that have been made."

The First Minister said that following the murder of Ms Bowe "the police have rolled out risk and vulnerability training to more than 800 staff, further guidance has been issued to all control room staff in regards to the regrading and closing of incidents, a national quality assurance unit for police call handling has also been established".

She said: "This was a tragic and unacceptable case ... but it is simply not the case to say that significant improvements are not being made and have not been made to call handling and it's important that lessons from cases like this continue to be learned."

Ms Sturgeon added: "It is also not just me or the Justice Secretary who are saying that significant improvements have been made - that is the view of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary.

"Significant action has been taken to strengthen the call handling processes and to make sure that the whole process is of the quality people deserve.

"But I will never ever stand here and say anything other than the type of cases we've heard reported this week, or the ones Ruth Davidson has quoted in this chamber are anything other than completely unacceptable.

"But in accepting that it would equally be wrong for me somehow to say that no improvements have been made, it is wrong for Ruth Davidson to say that, because that is not the case. Significant improvements have been made and will continue to be made and all lessons that require to be learned absolutely will be learned."

She argued that the number of calls Police Scotland deals with every year meant there would inevitably be some cases "where things go wrong", adding: "Our duty is to try to make sure that that risk is minimised as much as possible and that is what we will do."

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the Elizabeth Bowe case was "deeply troubling".

He said: "It is an issue I've raised repeatedly over recent years since the centralisation of the call centres.

"I think it's reasonable to ask these questions because Bilston Glen was at the centre of the M9 crash tragedy where two victims were left dying at the side of the motorway for days because of a shortage of experienced call handlers."

Mr Rennie it was "disturbing" that the crash involving Lamara Bell, 25, and her boyfriend John Yuill, 28, happened more than two years ago and there had still not been a fatal accident inquiry.

He added: "We need to understand what needs to be improved for improvements to be made. There are still questions about the underlying reasons of what went wrong in St Andrews, we still don't know what exactly went wrong on the M9."

He asked the First Minister to guarantee these answers would be given "before another tragedy happens".

Ms Sturgeon said decisions on fatal accident inquiries are taken by the Crown Office, adding: "There is no sense in any of these cases of waiting until fatal accident inquiries until action is taken to learn lessons and address any failings that have been identified.

"The work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, the work of Pirc is hugely important in that regard."

She added that "significant lessons have been learned and significant improvements have been made".