Inadequate oversight of new Police Scotland call handling model, warns review

Written by Alan Robertson on 10 November 2015 in News

HMICS sets out 30 recommendations on Police Scotland call handling procedures

Roll-out of Police Scotland's new national call handling model has suffered from “inadequate” oversight, a review into call handling procedures has warned.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) found examples of call handlers being under pressure to end calls quickly and grading of calls being dependent on resources available.

Plans to close control rooms in Aberdeen and Inverness have already been postponed after an interim report published in September.

HMICS has now said 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.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson​ ordered the review in July following the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell in a crash on the M9 motorway near Stirling.

The pair were found by officers three days after an initial call was made to Police Scotland which reported their car was off the road.

HMICS’ interim report warned that diverting unanswered calls from understaffed police control rooms in the north of Scotland to the central belt was “creating additional risk”.

Their final report has now set out 30 recommendations designed to improve call handling processes.

Staff handling calls from members of the public phoning 999 and 101 captured all relevant information with a 98 per cent accuracy rate.

However, inspectors discovered some staff noted information on ‘scribble pads’ rather than inputting it directly onto the system.

An audit found that 94 per cent of 999 calls were answered within 10 seconds in the west, with 93 per cent in the north and 92 per cent in the east.

However, only 82 per cent of non-emergency 101 calls are being answered within 40 seconds in the north of Scotland.

“While priority calls are answered quickly and result in a prompt response from officers, I found that lower priority calls can be affected by a lack of available resources to attend incidents and weak local management of calls,” said HM Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman.

“Whilst I have been able to provide some key assurances, 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.

“The oversight of this project has been inadequate with key risks and other issues not being identified or highlighted to senior managers. There was an initial focus on meeting deadlines and increased productivity rather than a well-managed project with a focus on customer service, good staff relations and thorough process design.”

While current ICT systems are “generally fit for purpose”, their stability “remains in question” while network performance continues to affect day to day operations, inspectors warned.

Savings in staff costs associated with the control room rationalisation project have been offset by increased police officer and overtime costs, HMICS added.

Inspectors said they were unable to identify the “true costs of the project and exact level of savings” with no framework in place to measures benefits of the new model.

Staff affected by future relocation or closure of control rooms have been “subject to significant uncertainties” and some had not received direct wellbeing, redundancy, retirement or employment support, the watchdog said.

“Staff are strongly committed, in often challenging circumstances, to providing a good service to the public,” added Penman. “This is despite many being subject to significant uncertainties about their futures and facing constant change in their working practices.

“We identified that workforce planning needs more attention to address previous weaknesses and ensure there are enough staff in place at critical stages. Initial assumptions on staffing levels were limited and there were insufficient staff in place at Bilston Glen when work transferred from Stirling and Glenrothes.

“This resulted in poor call handling performance. Police Scotland has however made considerable efforts to address this, with full staffing levels now in place and the grades of service for answering calls currently being met.”

Staffing levels across Police Scotland control rooms are now “stabilised”, HMICS found, though staffing challenges remain in the north of Scotland.

Police Scotland has been asked to produce an action plan with timescales for delivering the recommendations contained in today’s report.

HMICS will carry out a further audit of call handling once Police Scotland has implemented the next major stages of its call handling project.

Deputy chief constable Rose Fitzpatrick, who is responsible for local policing, said: “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."

A call handling training academy for new staff will now be extended to existing staff, added Fitzpatrick, while an expert independent reference group will be launched to advise Police Scotland on the development and implementation of the remaining stages of the project.

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