Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 06 December 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Education (Excellence and Equity), Renewables, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Social Care Charging


Topical Question Time

Police Control Rooms (Near Misses)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to reduce the number of “near misses” that are being recorded by police control rooms. (S5T-00242)

Police Scotland continues to take action to strengthen its approach to call handling. The decision to systematically record notable incidents is a direct response to one of the 30 recommendations that were contained in Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland’s November 2015 assurance review on police call handling. The inspectorate has identified that such a process is crucial to creating a learning environment that improves processes and mitigates risk. The Scottish Police Authority continues to oversee Police Scotland’s process in that regard and, more generally, to provide assurance on the service’s performance on call handling.

HMICS has confirmed that it will publish an update report on police call handling in January 2017 and we expect Police Scotland and the SPA to give careful consideration to any further findings or recommendations arising from that report.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable contribution that is made by police call handlers in responding to the more than 2.5 million 101 calls and around half a million emergency calls that are received by the service each year, and often in supporting members of the public at times of acute crisis for them. The information on notable incidents that was released last week highlighted that they occur in only around one in every 22,500 calls. I welcome the fact that action is being taken to understand and respond to instances where the service to the public has fallen short of what would be expected.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed response, and he is right to set the figures in context and pay tribute to the call handlers and staff who are involved. However, looking at the detail of some of the cases that were registered between April and October, I think that the cabinet secretary would agree that a number involve fairly serious issues: the location of incidents being logged incorrectly; a two-week delay in checking on the welfare of a child, due to a misplaced report; and, in response to a threat-to-life matter that was reported four times, the caller being told that no officers were available.

One of the primary concerns that many had about the closure of local control rooms and calls being answered increasingly closer to the central belt was about the loss of local knowledge. Can the cabinet secretary tell me how the loss of staff with, in some cases, decades of experience and detailed knowledge of their patch has been mitigated?

The member needs to recognise that, when Police Scotland was established, there were 18 call centres across the country, many of which had information technology systems that did not link to one another, could not record vulnerability and could not share intelligence. We therefore had a system that was not fit for purpose to deliver the necessary services for the public.

In the cases that are logged, where a serious error has occurred and there is concern about the possible impact on a member of the public, the matter will be investigated by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. That is what happened in a few of these instances. However, the purpose of recording notable incidents is to ensure that, if an error has occurred—for example, if the wrong details have been entered into the system by logging in the wrong code or there has been a failure to dispatch officers to an incident after it has been reported—that information is captured and lessons are learned so that such occurrences are minimised in the future. It is about ensuring that there is the right environment in our call centres to allow staff to be able to provide information when they think that an error has been made.

The member will also be aware—if he is not, he should be—of the 30 recommendations that were made by HMICS last year. Recommendation 12 specifically asked Police Scotland to review its present staffing model for its call centres in Scotland. That piece of work has been completed and Police Scotland is now implementing it for the staffing of the call centres. A significant body of work has been taken forward over the past year. I have no doubt that Police Scotland will continue with that and ensure that there is appropriate assurance and review of the process, as there is through the Scottish Police Authority and the independent assurance that I have directed through HMICS.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that further detailed response and the encouragement that he offered about how Police Scotland is taking forward the recommendations to which he referred. Of course, the statistics on notable incidents were released to the BBC only after the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered them to be released. Does the cabinet secretary believe that such figures should routinely be published, as a matter of course, in order to aid public scrutiny and provide wider reassurance?

It is worth recording in the Parliament that the public body in Scotland that deals with more freedom of information requests than any other part of the public sector is Police Scotland. At the moment it is doing a piece of work to look at what information it can readily put into the public domain so that freedom of information requests are not necessary, and the information that we are discussing is part of that work. However, it is worth keeping in mind that Police Scotland is still developing the notable incidents process. It is a system that will be reviewed, and HMICS has already identified that it will review the system as part of its on-going assurance review. It is therefore a piece of work that is still being taken forward. I have no doubt that, once that process has been completed, Police Scotland will be looking to see what information it can put into the public domain to give continued assurance about how its call centres are operating.

Earlier this year, Chief Superintendent Campbell Thomson, who is the divisional commander of A division, which includes Moray, said:

“There have been a number of challenges relating to the recruitment and retention of police staff controllers.”

Will the cabinet secretary tell Parliament what action was taken to address that issue? Does he acknowledge the local communities’ concerns about continued centralisation of that vital Police Scotland function?

First, I am not sure whether the member is suggesting that we retain the old model, in which we had 18 call centres that did not have IT systems that could co-operate with one another and we were not able to share the right intelligence across them. That system was not fit for purpose. The model that is being taken forward by Police Scotland has been reviewed by HMICS, which has said that it is an appropriate model for the delivery of services.

I know that the member was not in the Parliament in the previous session, but he should be aware that recommendation 12 of HMICS’s assurance review, which I directed last year, was for Police Scotland to review the staff model in the call centres. That work has been completed, and Police Scotland is implementing the recommendations to make sure that the staffing ratios in the call centres are suitable to meet the needs and the demands of the service.

Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on Police Scotland's progress in implementing the 30 recommendations in the HMICS independent assurance review on call handling, as referred to in his answer to Liam McArthur?

As members may be aware, the assurance review took place as a result of the direction that I gave to HMICS. The 30 recommendations that were published last November are areas of work that Police Scotland has been taking forward. Some of the recommendations go beyond call handling and are about other aspects of how the police service operates with its contact, command and control centres.

HMICS has confirmed that it will provide an update in January 2017. That will be laid before Parliament, and members will be able to see what progress has been made against each of the recommendations and whether there are any further recommendations or pieces of work that HMICS recommends that Police Scotland takes forward.

I assure the member that the recommendations are under constant scrutiny by HMICS, as well as by the SPA governance and assurance review group, which is also responsible for this piece of work. External assurance is also being provided to Police Scotland to ensure that it is doing everything possible to implement the recommendations effectively.

Although I appreciate that the vast majority of cases were properly dealt with, as Liam McArthur stated a number of near misses had serious consequences. HMICS will be following up last year’s report into call handling with a more detailed report into each notable incident, and that report is due next month. When the report is published, will the cabinet secretary commit to coming back to the Parliament to update us and assure us that all possible action is being taken to address any concerns that HMICS and the wider public may still have?

I am happy to do so, if members would find that useful, because publishing the report would allow members to get a full update on where Police Scotland is on taking forward the 30 recommendations. It is also worth bearing in mind that, as part of the assurance process, I directed HMICS to undertake unannounced inspections in the call handling contact, command and control centres to make sure that there is continued review of how Police Scotland handles calls and how its centres operate. That work continues to take place and HMICS continues to monitor these matters.

If members would find it useful to have an update once the HMICS update report has been provided, I am more than happy to facilitate that for Parliament and for members.

Ban on Smoking in Cars with Children Present (Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what the expected impact on health will be from the ban on smoking in cars with children present. (S5T-00246)

The overall health of children will be improved by reducing their exposure to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke in cars. Second-hand smoke can have serious negative health impacts on a child, including coughing, wheezing, asthma, middle-ear disease and respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

I thank the minister for that answer and the steps that the Government is taking to protect children from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. It sends a clear message that children in Scotland should be growing up in a healthy, smoke-free environment. How will the Government monitor the effectiveness of the legislation and, over the longer term, will it review whether the penalties available are providing a useful deterrent?

Before I respond in detail to Maree Todd’s supplementary question about monitoring, I note that our Liberal Democrat colleagues are in the chamber and I put on record our thanks to Jim Hume for his work in the previous parliamentary session to introduce the Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) (Scotland) Bill.

I also want to highlight the approach that we are taking more generally to reducing the harm that tobacco causes. The take it right outside campaign, which encourages adults to smoke outdoors, has helped us to reach our target of reducing children’s exposure to second-hand smoke from 11 per cent in 2013 to 6 per cent in 2020—we have reached the target five years early. The Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) (Scotland) Act 2016, which came into force yesterday, demonstrates our commitment to going further on the issue.

We are increasing restrictions on the sale of tobacco and electronic cigarettes to under-18s, limiting the advertising of such products, and bringing in a mandatory ban on smoking near hospital buildings to protect people from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. We are also examining proposals to extend the current ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces to prisons.

We will work with partners in environmental health and the national health service and with others to continue to monitor the effectiveness of our legislation and consider what further steps should or could be taken to ensure that we create a tobacco-free generation by 2034.

Given that children who grow up with a parent or someone else smoking around them are much more likely to become smokers, and that two thirds of adult smokers say that they started smoking as children, we can make a real impact on health in future by protecting children from tobacco.

I was going to ask the minister what wider action the Scottish Government is taking to create a tobacco-free generation in Scotland by 2034, but I think that she might have answered the question and I am not sure whether there is anything more that she wants to say.

I can let Maree Todd know that, in addition to the range of activity that I set out, smoking cessation advice and support are available to all pregnant women in Scotland to help to ensure that each child has the healthiest start in life. We are taking forward a range of activities to ensure that we have a tobacco-free generation by 2034.

I thank the minister for her recognition of the work by my good friend Jim Hume and the Liberal Democrats in stewarding the Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) (Scotland) Bill through the Parliament.

When he was Minister for Public Health in the previous session, Michael Matheson said:

“We have no current plans to consult on extending Scotland’s smoke-free laws to private cars. Successful implementation of the smoking ban has undoubtedly already reduced exposure to second-hand smoke among children in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2011; c 3873.]

Today, however, the 2016 act gets well-deserved fanfare and a beautiful Scottish National Party infographic that claims credit for it. Does the minister agree that without my good friend Jim Hume’s intervention we would not have passed the 2016 act and be celebrating today the protection of tens of thousands of Scottish young people?

Despite a degree of friendliness—I suppose—at the start of the member’s question, his comments descended into churlishness. We should remember that we voted unanimously for the bill in each and every party in the Parliament. I have put on record our thanks to Jim Hume; of course he introduced the member’s bill, but we had already put in place pieces of legislation to take forward our ambitions for a smoke-free generation by 2034. Indeed, the previous Administration, under Labour, had started much of the work. All the parties have worked hard to improve public health in Scotland, and I hope that we will continue to work in a spirit of consensus to make further gains in public health in Scotland.