Successful call handling is central not only for the satisfaction of the public, but also for the effective investigation of crime and management of intelligence. As part of a national strategy to improve call handling across all forces, the police reform White Paper set out a number of projects that the Government are bringing together.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Hertfordshire constabulary, normally excellent in every way, has experienced severe problems with its new call centre at Welwyn Garden City for the past 18 months? Constituents have had to wait 10 minutes for their 999 calls to be answered, and in some regrettable cases no action was taken afterwards. Will my hon. Friend do all that she can to ensure that the lack of adequately trained staff, which apparently caused those problems, is rectified?
This is an extremely important issue. Whenever I visit forces and communities, the issue that is constantly raised is call handling and responsiveness, and I am aware of the difficulties in my hon. Friend's force area. I understand that Hertfordshire has made that a priority, in response to complaints from the community, and has set up a single non-emergency number which is beginning to take some 999 calls and that is helping to draw demand on the service. There are 1.3 million calls to her local force, so the volume is huge, but she is right to say that we need properly trained, high-quality staff in the call centres to ensure that the service to the public is of a proper standard. I shall certainly do everything I can to impress the importance of that on her local force—and indeed nationally.
Does the Minister accept that there is a distinction between 999 calls, where the service is usually good, and non-emergency calls, where it is often abysmal, to the extent that large numbers of criminal offences are never reported or recorded? Will she investigate in particular the position in London, where we are told that in large parts of the capital it may be two years before anything can be done to have an even half-decent reporting system for non-emergency calls?
This is an important area. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are now working on plans for a single national non-emergency service. It is apparent that many of the calls that go to the police would be better dealt with by local authorities—community psychiatric nurses, for example, if there is a problem in the community. We want to try to ensure that calls to the non-emergency number are channelled to the right people at the right time, so that there can be a much quicker response. We are making significant progress on that national non-emergency number. Responsiveness and call handling are an absolute top priority for the public, and that is why we are working on national standards, which will be in place everywhere in the country by the end of 2006. Every force, including London, will be expected to comply with those standards.