On Tuesday the 13th of December I observed Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s Scrutiny Committee.
The committee were told that Cambridgeshire Police are getting even worse at answering their phones.
Deputy Chief Constable Feavyour brought Superintendent Fullwood, who is charge of the force control room, to appear before the committee.
The committee were told the number of non-emergency calls going unanswered is rising and the latest data presented showed thousands of non-emergency calls being “abandoned” by members of the public each month.
The Superintendent said he had only just been brought into his post, and explained there was a plan involving: “SpeakDial” (greater automation) to improve matters.
I had used the public question slot to note:
There is no data on how long those calls which don’t meet the target call answering time take to answer. This is to me a key omission. I want to know for example, how many 999 calls take over a minute to answer, how many non-emergency calls take over five minutes to answer etc.
The meeting’s chair took this point up and requested more information on how badly the targets were being missed when the target time for picking up the phones (ten seconds for 999) was not achieved. The police were asked to provide data on the worst cases, for both 999 and non-emergency calls; with the caveat that the committee only wanted the data if it was relatively easy to obtain.
I think this was an important step as it will help the public and authority members assess the problem.
Cllr John Reynolds expressed concern that the next scrutiny committee meeting isn’t scheduled until the 19th of March 2012; which is quite a long time to wait without decent statistics and with the problems unresolved. The Police Authority’s clerk said, cryptically, “something could be arranged” (perhaps a special meeting on this important matter?).
The Superintendent and Deputy Chief Constable said the problem was that control room staff had been cut too far. The Deputy Chief Constable said that given the scale of cuts it was inevitable that sometimes they will go too far and corrective action will need to be taken. The committee were told that fourteen staff had been cut from those answering the phones.
Peterborough City Councillor Matthew Lee (Conservative) spoke passionately on the issue. He said that those who’ve not been able to get through to the police will have their impressions of the service severely damaged, and they’ll remember for years that they weren’t able to get through when they tried to. He urged taking immediate action and moving staff from elsewhere in the organisation into the control room. However his proposal was not supported by any of his fellow committee members (many of whom were unelected appointees).
Cllr Lee said that if we had an elected commissioner, and they heard of the extent of the problems the police were having answering their phones, they would demand that it was addressed straight away.
The police were not clear on exactly what they were proposing to tackle the problem or in what timescale. They talked both about reversing the extent of the cuts and about new technology.
Members of the committee appeared more interested in educating the public to wait on the line longer for the police to answer (though they had no data on how long they’d actually be asking people to wait).
Cllr Lucas, the meeting’s chair, said that he had been told himself, and he had heard from other elected representatives and parish councillors, that people were not reporting minor crime, such as broken windows in their homes, because they had lost confidence that the police would answer their phones.
Members of the committee were told there had been a reduction in the total number of non-emergency calls. Committee members and the police agreed this was probably due to people not even bothering to try calling having had a poor experience.
The potential implication on statistics, and reduced reporting of crime, was raised.
Other members said that people complaining they couldn’t get through to the police when they called up was being raised at all the local meetings they attended. However Nic Williams, the member responsible for South Cambridgeshire (an unelected appointee) said this had not been raised in her area. It was suggested this was due to the press coverage of the problems being in the Cambridgeshire Times and Cambridge Evening News, however Nic Williams said the Cambridge Evening News was the major newspaper in her area too.
Proposals to reassure the public at local meetings that the police were still available even if people couldn’t get through on the phone were raised. Nic Williams objected on the grounds that in her area this would amount to reassuring people who weren’t aware there was a problem.
Another part of the public question I submitted read:
Does the committee believe that the 999 system has been unaffected by the problems affecting the police’s ability to answer its phones which started this summer?
Cllr Lucas said he stood by his answer on behalf of the Authority to the Cambridgeshire County Council full council meeting at which he said the 999 system was unaffected.
I also stated:
It would be useful if the performance pack quoted what the “grade of service” standards applicable actually are. Currently, as far as I can tell, an assumption has to be made that national standards are being followed.
The response to this was that the grades of service had, once, been reported to the full authority. (I don’t know if that’s was intended seriously be considered acceptable, as clearly there’s no point saying X% of calls meet a target in a report if you have to hunt through documents for another committee to find out what that target actually is).
On a related point unelected member Jayne Wright noted that she was the only person promoting the use of the new non-emergency number 101 at local meetings. (I thought it was interesting to hear she spoke as a police authority member at local meetings, our local member for Cambridge never does so). The police said that as it was being “soft-launched” they were not actively promoting it yet.
If this matter is raised at the Police and Crime Scrutiny Committee at the County Council on the 14th of December I think the key questions are:
- How and when will the police be retuning call answering performance to 2009 levels?
- When is the new technology expected to be installed. What features will it have for the public? (eg. will it return abandoned calls, or enable such call backs?)
- How bad is the current situation, we know thousands of calls are being dropped, but how long are people hanging on waiting for an answer?
- Are the pressures specific to certain times of the day? Certain days when staff levels are lower than required?
- The written “performance pack” of data presented to the committee (PDF)
- Cambridgeshire Police Not Answering Phone – my article from the 13th of September 2011