Tied to a downpipe, the flowers have long withered. If they are noticed at all, few of the people spilling out of Ayr bus station into Fullerton Street will know why they are there. There is no name attached to the small wreath, no message. Like the flowers themselves, memories have faded since the night in July 2012 when 15-year-old Kayleigh Scott fell 60 feet to her death from the roof of a tenement block.
It was 20 minutes to midnight when paramedics attempted unsuccessfully to save her life. She and her sister Jodie (17 at the time) had somehow got themselves on to the roof along with 'one or two older men.' There was an incident, the nature of which has never been disclosed, as a result of which Kayleigh Scott either jumped from the roof, taking her own life, or accidentally stumbled and fell. Any suggestion that she might have been pushed was quickly dismissed by the police who declared, in the familiar catch-all euphemism, that there were 'no suspicious circumstances.'
Such is the Scottish way of dealing with unexplained deaths, we shall never know exactly what happened. Soon after her death, SR learned on good authority that Kayleigh had the formal status of a 'looked after child,' that she was well known to the police and the children's panel, that she was officially classified as at risk, that she was being supervised and supported. So supervised, so supported, that after a night of heavy drinking she ended up dead in the street.
We published what we knew of her troubled background – the only media outlet to do so – and recommended that the Crown Office should exercise its discretion and order a fatal accident inquiry (FAI). We were informed at first that the case was being considered. When we repeated our request some months later, the answer was unequivocal: there would be no fatal accident inquiry into the death of Kayleigh Scott.
Not the least disturbing aspect of this case, as with so many others, is the lack of transparency on the part of a national prosecuting authority which seems to feel no obligation to justify its decisions. The most it was prepared to say in the case of the three asylum seekers who fell to their deaths from a tower block in Springburn, Glasgow, in 2010, was that an inquiry would not be in 'the public interest.' How the Crown Office judges what is in the public interest is anybody's guess. There had been considerable public interest in the fate of the asylum seekers – until the Crown Office decided uniterally
that there was none.
The repeated unwillingness to account properly for the dead – the most basic form of accountability in any civilised society – reflects poorly on a country that is never slow to advertise its humanitarian credentials (as we have observed in the last 48 hours at the conference of the ruling party). But it is aggravated by the handling of the minority of cases in which the Crown Office is obliged by law, or voluntarily chooses, to hold an inquiry. There is, for example, a duty under statute to inquire publicly into the deaths of prisoners – but when SR checked recently on the progress of such cases, we discovered a tailback stretching back years.
It is now almost four years since a police helicopter crashed into the roof of the Clutha Bar in the centre of Glasgow. It is so long ago that the first minister at the time was not Nicola Sturgeon but Alex Salmond, who called it a black day for Scotland. It was: 10 people died and 32 were injured. The shock and grief were widely felt. There was a sense that it could have been anybody's father or mother in there, anybody's son or daughter. And there was an immediate assurance to the families of the victims that justice would be served by a rigorous examination of the facts. We are still waiting.
On the third anniverary (29 November 2016), legal representatives of the families demanded to know when the fatal accident inquiry would begin. Their solicitor said that the continuing delay was a source of pain, and called on the Crown Office to provide 'clarity' and announce a date. The Crown Office merely responded that it was a 'challenging and highly complex inquiry,' and gave no date. Almost a year later, we seem to be no further forward: no nearer to a resolution.
Clutha was not the only fatal helicopter crash in 2013. In August that year, four people were killed when a Super Puma crashed on its approach to Sumburgh airport on Shetland. One of them was Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin. A few weeks ago, Sarah's elderly mother, Anne, made a public appeal: she said simply that four years was a long time to wait. The Crown Office's reply was identical, except for a slight juxtaposition of wording; this was a 'highly complex and challenging inquiry.' Again, no timetable.
Behind this catalogue of delay and obfuscation, there is politics. There is the politics of the Crown Office's fatalities investigation unit, which was established to speed up the process and ease the distress of the bereaved. Stories emerge from time to time of a unit under-resourced, overwhelmed by its caseload, and afflicted by poor morale. Who knows how much of this is true? The Crown Office is as frank about its own organisation as it is about everything else.
Then there is the politics of the system itself. In England and Wales, where the coroner ensures incomparably greater standards of transparency, inquests are opened into 30,000 deaths a year. In Scotland, the annual number of FAIs is measured not in thousands but in dozens. In England and Wales, it takes an average of 27 weeks to process an inquest – from the time a death is reported to the coroner’s verdict. In Scotland, grieving families wait years for the truth. Sometimes, denied a public inquiry, they wait forever.
And finally there is the larger politics of policy-making. Does the SNP administration not see here a rotten structure crying out for reform? Does it not recognise that we need to place a legal obligation on the authorities to inquire publicly into the deaths of young people in care, such as Kayleigh Scott? Would it not consider imposing a formal time restraint on the conduct of important investigations such as Clutha Bar?
Or is that pitiable spectacle – the wreath of withered flowers – left to speak eloquently of our indifference to the dead?