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Police: Emergency Calls

Volume 790: debated on Thursday 22 March 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve police force response times to emergency calls.

My Lords, no one in need of urgent help should have their emergency call unanswered. While answering 999 calls is an operational matter for the police, we have maintained protection for police spending so that forces have the resources that they need to carry out their important work. It is for the police to determine how best to allocate their resources and manage their communications with the public.

My Lords, today Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services has highlighted major concern that policing is under significant stress.

“About a quarter of forces are all too often overwhelmed by the demand they face”,

and are not meeting the one-hour standard for responding to 999 calls that require an immediate response, with one force taking an average of 14 hours to respond to such calls. Although these calls are not those where life is immediately in danger, they include domestic assaults where a partner has left the scene but could return at any moment, a category of call that has increased by 88% over the past year.

This week, the UK Statistics Authority ruled that the Government misled the public with the claim of an extra £450 million for local forces when, in fact, central government funding is falling in real terms—and has been for years. Would today, as we remember the sacrifice of PC Keith Palmer, be a good day for the Government to finally admit that the police service is now underfunded and say that they are going to increase central government funding for the police service?

I first join the noble Lord in remembering today the sacrifice that Keith Palmer made to protect people in the Palace of Westminster. There will be a memorial in, I think, about 20 minutes’ time in Westminster Hall to remember the attack a year ago. The MPCC and the APCC called for £440 million of extra funding in 2018-19, with additional counterterrorism funding and increases in council tax precepts on top. They wanted this funding for an extra 5,000 front-line officers for proactive policing by 2020. The funding increase for next year is made up of main government grant, protected at flat cash; up to £270 million from increase in council tax precept income; a £15 million increase in counterterrorism police funding; and a £130 million increase in national priorities, mostly special grant, for exceptional costs and technology. On the point about domestic violence, I totally agree with the noble Lord. We have provided £11 million through the police transformation fund to support new police interventions to tackle domestic abuse, with a focus on early intervention and prevention.

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in paying tribute to PC Keith Palmer. The crisis in police response times has been made in Downing Street and the Home Office and is putting people’s safety at risk. Does the Minister accept that the Government have, in real terms, cut the funding to police? When she responds, I am sure that she will have in mind the comments of the UK Statistics Authority chair, Sir David Norgrove, who criticised the Government and the Home Office for incorrectly leading the public to assume that the Government were increasing police funding.

My Lords, every time I have stood at this Dispatch Box I have tried to explain what the increase will look like. I hope that I have made it quite clear. I have just explained to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, the breakdown of the funding. Almost all PCCs in England intend to increase the precept by £12, or very close to that. We expect the funding increase for local force budgets to be very close to the £270 million figure that I have just outlined. Most PCCs have set out plans to use this additional funding to protect or improve front-line policing. As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, if all forces delivered the level of productivity benefits of mobile working of the best forces, the average officer could spend an hour a day extra on the front line. This has the potential to free up the equivalent of 11,000 extra officers across England and Wales.

My Lords, it is unfortunate that we talk about criticism of the police service on a day when we are recognising the bravery of Keith Palmer and many other officers who run towards danger rather than away from it—some of which is of course not reported. Can we return, if we may, to the question of emergency calls? A 999 call is the last resort of people out there on the streets and in their houses. There is no other course for people to take other than to take matters into their own hands and, to use the Inspector of the Constabulary’s words this morning on the “Today” programme, “If they are mad enough to take action, they will get an immediate response”.

I have listened to what the Minister has to say about funding, but the issue is emergency calls. It is a triage system that does not work and, if it is a question of resources, surely Home Office procedures and action should take care of these issues.

This is not just a question of answering 999 calls. Again, if you look at the report and listen to the Inspector of Constabulary, more importantly, it is a matter of investigative resources. Detectives are short of resources. Surely the noble Baroness will accept that this needs to be monitored and followed up by a further report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary to this House or to the public.

I agree with the noble Lord’s point about PC Keith Palmer and the bravery of our police forces. They often put their lives at risk in the line of duty. I also agree with him that 999 is a last resort. He talked about people who had been man enough to call deserving the response required. Sometimes, it would be good if someone were woman enough to call—because often these people are victims of domestic violence—but I understand the point of the noble Lord’s question.

In terms of resources, the Minister for Policing, Nick Hurd, has visited every police force in the country. Hence, we have arrived at the settlement that I outlined to both noble Lords who asked about this. The police are operationally independent of government. It is up to the police to deploy the resources that they get in their priority areas. It is absolutely right that 999 calls are answered. If you look around the different police forces, you will see different performance levels. It is not necessarily those police forces with the most money who perform best.

I wrote last week to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, and pointed out that the working conditions of the armed officers here on the Palace Estate are not very good. They work a two-hour shift. If they get wet or cold, as they did in the snow, they are not very effective. I have photographs of officers with snow on their shoulders and hats. I cannot help but feel that, if they were horses or dogs, they would get some shelter. Is the Minister going to do something for these armed officers who are risking their lives in their jobs?

I can certainly take the noble Baroness’s comments back. I agree with her that dogs and horses are sometimes more important to the public than humans. I look forward to hearing the response from Cressida Dick to the noble Baroness.

Should the police be encouraged to make greater use of their stop-and-search powers, particularly in London?

We have been mindful that stop and search has perhaps been overused in the past. As we are more vigilant as a nation to the dangers not only of serious and organised crime but of potential terrorism on our streets, the police-led intelligence work is probably going to have to be more fine-tuned in terms of stop and search.

My Lords, when a 999 call is made, there is a response from the police and they determine the urgency of the situation. Who measures the outcome of these urgent calls over a period of time to see how effective the police’s response has been?

There is an assumption that every 999 call is urgent, though it is not always the case. The police operationally determine the seriousness of that call. In recent times, police have been trained more acutely to recognise signs of vulnerability from members of the public who call, particularly in the area of domestic violence.