Deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell: Statement by Cabinet Secretary for Justice

Statement given by Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans Keith Brown to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on Thursday, 9 September 2021

Thank you Presiding Officer. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a statement on police call handling and the tragic deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell in 2015.

I’d like to start by offering my condolences to the families of John Yuill and Lamara Bell. The Chief Constable unreservedly apologised to John and Lamara’s families yesterday. And as the then Justice Secretary did at the time I want to apologise to the families for this tragic loss.   

I am deeply sorry.

Following a complex and thorough investigation the Lord Advocate in her independent role as head of the system of prosecution in Scotland confirmed that criminal proceedings would be brought against Police Scotland in connection with Mr Yuill and Ms Bell’s deaths.

As members will be aware, on Tuesday at the High Court in Edinburgh the Police Service of Scotland pled guilty to an offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, admitting to "corporate criminal liability" in relation to these tragic events in July 2015.

I understand that the case team and staff from the Crown Office Victim Information and Advice service have communicated with family members and their legal representatives throughout this process.

Presiding Officer, I know that the minds of a number of family members will now turn to the question of whether there will be a Fatal Accident Inquiry. This decision is a matter for the Lord Advocate and I have no locus in it as Cabinet Secretary.

The Lord Advocate has confirmed that work has begun to initiate a Fatal Accident Inquiry, and has committed to make further information on the process public when possible.

It is important to recognise the significance of this case and of the sentence.  However, as Lord Beckett said in his sentencing statement: “There is no sentence this Court can pass which reflects the inestimable value of life lost and harm caused.”

Following the tragic events in July 2015, Ministers did act quickly; with the then Cabinet Secretary for Justice directing Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to undertake an independent assurance review of the operation, systems and processes in place in Police Scotland’s Contact, Command and Control Division. 

That review resulted in 30 recommendations for improvement and the Inspectorate worked closely with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to implement wide-ranging changes in the period since. 

In May 2018 HMICS published an update report which confirmed that all 30 of the recommendations relating to their initial assurance review had been discharged and commended Police Scotland for the considerable priority it attached to this work.

This week, HMICS published a further briefing note confirming that it has continued to engage with Police Scotland’s Contact, Command and Control (C3) Division and conducted ongoing assurance work on the new Contact Assessment Model (CAM) and the wider Police Scotland change programme.

The briefing note confirmed that a further eight recommendations were made to support ongoing improvement and to ensure that key areas of development and risk continued to be addressed by the SPA and by Police Scotland. All of these further recommendations have subsequently been discharged.

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland Gill Imery commented in the briefing that she is in her words “confident that Police Scotland has made significant progress in terms of its call handling processes and is committed to pursue continuous improvement, investing further in technology, staff and the C3 estate”.

Ms Imery noted that the force has maintained a high level of transparency over its call handling performance, publishing monthly reports on its website to ensure the public and interested parties can scrutinise its progress. She thanked the officers and staff of Police Scotland who have continued to engage positively in HMICS’ assurance processes and reviews.

Presiding Officer, since the establishment of Police Scotland, public scrutiny of policing has never been greater. It is essential that public and parliamentary confidence in the police remains strong and I know members will share my view that Scotland is well served by its police service, and its hardworking, dedicated and professional officers and staff.

Created through the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, Police Scotland is a result of the largest exercise in public service reform since devolution.

The Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny report on the Act was published in 2019 and it rightly recognised some significant achievements, including the creation of national capabilities in policing, described as in their words ‘a success story for Scotland’. We are confident the structures and procedures brought in under the Police and Fire Reform Act 2012 have strengthened the governance, accountability and scrutiny arrangements for policing.

In giving evidence to the Justice Committee and notwithstanding the circumstances of this tragedy in October as part of that process, Chief Constable Iain Livingstone was clear that police reform has made Scotland safer, saying: “I don’t think Scotland would be as safe now and in the future as it is, had we not gone through that process of reform.”

That’s a sentiment which the Scottish Police Authority chair strongly agreed with. And in these recent, unprecedented times, we have been very well served by Police Scotland, its officers and staff. Public confidence in policing is high: a survey by the Scottish Police Authority in February 2021 confirmed that 58% of respondents rated their local police as excellent or good.

Publishing its recent annual report (on 13 August 2021) HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, Mrs Gill Imery QPM, said, in the context of an ongoing pandemic that: “Having one police service for Scotland helped achieve consistency in leadership direction, interpretation and implementation of legislation. Police Scotland’s public messages repeatedly emphasised working with the public as fellow citizens, maintaining the principle of policing by consent and building legitimacy, despite the extraordinary additional police powers to restrict people’s individual freedoms.”

Much has been achieved through police reform, and I firmly believe that policing in Scotland is stronger for it. That, however, in no way detracts from the failures that occurred in this part of the reform programme and which have been accepted by Police Scotland.

As Lord Beckett stated during sentencing:

“The offence for which the Police Service of Scotland has accepted responsibility and pled guilty to arises from human error which arose at a time of considerable restructuring of the police and necessary reorganisation of their procedures. I accept senior counsel’s unchallenged submission in relation to the reorganisation of call handling and area control, that:

“This was not change for the sake of change, or change driven purely by the desire to reduce costs. Rather, the lack of an integrated system caused considerable operational difficulties: the previous legacy systems could not communicate with each other, access to technology across the forces varied and coordination of operational responses across legacy boundaries was convoluted and cumbersome.”

The Scottish Police Authority recognise that the severity and significance of the charges and the fine placed on Police Scotland underline the serious failure to respond appropriately to this incident in 2015.

SPA Chair Martyn Evans said in his statement following court proceedings: “The Chief Constable’s detailed acknowledgement of these failings, apology and personal commitment to continue to drive improvement and further reduce the opportunity for such circumstances to ever happen again are frank and heartfelt.”

Presiding Officer, nothing I say here today in the chamber can adequately recognise the sense of grief and loss that the families will have endured.

Again I want to turn to the families of John and Lamara and say I am deeply sorry for what happened. And I am deeply sorry for your loss.

Thank you Presiding Officer.

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