Police call handling

Cabinet Secretary for Justice: Parliamentary statement on police call handling.

Thank you Presiding Officer. I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament on progress with the transformation of Police Scotland's approach to call handling.

In July of 2015 I directed 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 has worked closely with Police Scotland and the SPA to implement wide-ranging changes in the period since.

In January 2017 HMICS published an update report which indicated good progress and I am pleased to confirm that a further, final report has been published today which again shows improvement.

Indeed, HMICS has confirmed this morning that all 30 of the recommendations relating to their initial assurance review have now been discharged. In doing so, the Inspectorate has commended the police service for the considerable priority which it has rightly attached to this work. I think it is important that we too recognise the efforts of all those involved.

As a result of those efforts, Police Scotland has delivered:

  • a revised, stabilised staffing model for police call handling, ensuring the service has the right number of people at the right time to manage the demands it faces
  • an improved approach to training, ensuring that those same individuals have the skills they need to support those members of the public who are seeking assistance, often in the most distressing and high risk circumstances
  • improved stability of key ICT infrastructure and systems, giving call handlers the tools they need to deliver the best service they can

The service has also implemented a number of important controls to ensure it maintains the necessary high standards that the public expect. Those include the establishment of a new dedicated Quality Assurance Unit for contact, command and control, and the implementation of a "Notable Incidents" process which allows the service to learn from those calls which haven't been handled as they should have been.

That process, and the calls highlighted through it, have of course been the subject of previous exchanges in this chamber. Whilst the service itself would recognise such incidents are the cause of regret, this process highlights the service's commitment to minimising the likelihood of these same mistakes being made again. This is key to openness, accountability and continuous improvement and that is why it is so important.

Of course, as recognised by HMICS in today's report, the reality is that we will never entirely eradicate risk when it comes to police call handling. It is a human endeavour and humans can make mistakes.

In terms of broader context, over the last weekend Police Scotland dealt with over five and a half thousand 999 calls and roughly sixteen thousand calls to the 101 service. In total, the service dealt with over 16,000 individual incidents requiring some form of police response, of which 470 related to missing persons and 670 to domestic incidents. The service also dealt with 43 separate firearm incidents. I say this simply to outline the scale and complexity of policing – and police call handling – in Scotland.

HMICS reports that overall police call handling continues to perform well. Grade of service – that is the time taken to answer calls – is strong, with 91% of 999 calls being answered within 10 seconds. The number of discontinued calls is proportionately low and continues to drop. And upwards of 94% of those members of the public who contact Police Scotland over the phone are satisfied with the service they receive.

Benchmarking Police Scotland's call handling against that of other forces is not straightforward and so the service has worked to identify alternative ways to assess the quality of the service it provides. To that end, in February of this year the service secured formal accreditation from the Customer Contact Association.

These achievements are down to the highly skilled and dedicated call handlers who work on our behalf each and every day. I welcome the steps being taken by the service to give credit to those individuals, who were recognised at Police Scotland's annual C3 awards ceremony last month.

As I have already touched on, these improvements have been delivered throughout a period of significant change, with far reaching work having been undertaken to re-model Police Scotland's approach to call handling.

It is clear that the effective management of that change, which has included the establishment of a single service centre to receive calls from across the country and the redesign of the service's approach to incident control, has been recognised by HMICS as a model of good practice.

The adoption of robust planning and governance processes has delivered increased confidence, whilst more effective communication within C3 Division has had a positive impact on the morale of staff and officers, all of whom will have been affected in some shape or form.

As a result, Police Scotland now has an approach to call handling which will allow the public to experience the full benefits that come from a single police service. Spikes in call volumes can be managed more effectively, resources can be deployed more flexibly and national incidents gripped in a way not previously possible.

Of course, the hallmark of any effective organisation is its ability to continuously improve and that is what we must expect of Police Scotland going forward. The additional recommendations contained in this latest HMICS report should guide those efforts and I am reassured that they align well with the wider programme of transformation being taken forward as part of the service's 2026 strategy. Good progress has been made but more can always be done and Police Scotland must maintain the momentum it has now built.

The service's work to implement a new contact assessment model will ensure that future deployment decisions are based on a more robust understanding of risk and vulnerability, whilst the service's Contact Strategy will enable the public to engage with the service in a way which best meets their needs.

The Scottish Government is supporting this work including through the provision of £400,000 last year to support investment in new technology for C3. This builds on the £1.4m that we made available to support initial improvements in call handling back in 2015.

Of course, it is for the Scottish Police Authority to ensure the necessary progress is being made in these areas. To that end, the Authority is currently giving consideration to the establishment of a dedicated committee focussing on police reform and transformation, and I welcome this.

That scrutiny will continue to be supported by HMICS who will turn their attention to another critical part of the policing jigsaw in the coming year –the interface between Area Control Rooms and local police divisions.

In closing, I would like to put on record my continuing appreciation for the work of the Inspectorate and offer particular thanks to recently retired HM Chief Inspector Derek Penman for the valuable contribution he has made. Whilst we can never be complacent, I am confident that our police call handlers are better placed than ever to support communities in meeting the changing threats they face. And I look forward to seeing how the improvements I have described today can help lead to better outcomes for the people of Scotland.

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