Northampton

Concern over 999 response by Northamptonshire Police raised

Concern over a drop in the proportion of 999 calls answered within 10 seconds by Northamptonshire Constabulary has been raised by candidates for the police and crime commissioner (PCC) post.

Elections will be held on 15 November to choose PCCs who will replace police authorities currently in charge of 41 forces in England and Wales.

PCCs will be responsible for setting priorities for their force, overseeing its budget and hiring the chief constable.

Image caption Adam Simmonds, the Conservative candidate, believes the drop in response time is a "scandal"

A Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request revealed that in August 2011 more than 93% of 999 calls were answered within 10 seconds, but that percentage had fallen to just over 57% in August 2012.

In the first six months of 2011, 90 calls were not answered at all by the Northamptonshire control room. In the same period this year the figure increased to 245.

Northamptonshire Police said: "August 2012 was a challenging month which saw us receive 468 more 999 calls into the control room than we received in August 2011.

"We were also recruiting new staff to the control room as, since the redundancies were made, further staff have left due to retirements etc.

Image caption Labour candidate Lee Baron said the government must be challenged on cuts

"This has meant that for a short period we had 10% less staff than the efficiency savings review recommendation.

"New staff are now fully trained and in place and we now have more staff working on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to provide increased resources for our busiest periods."

Former senior officer at Northamptonshire County Council Adam Simmonds, the Conservative candidate who found out the information after putting in the FOI request, said: "This is an absolute scandal. Northamptonshire Police has made deep cuts in its 999 response service and as a result the promptness and quality of responses has deteriorated badly.

Image caption UKIP candidate Jim MacArthur said the staff did a "fantastic job" until cuts came in

"I am appalled that of all the efficiencies which could have been made in the policing budget, the 999 response service was chosen.

"It didn't need to be. There is plenty of other scope for making efficiency savings without cutting the most front-line, emergency service on which the public demand and expect rapid response."

Chairman of Midlands TUC and former Northampton councillor Lee Barron, the Labour candidate, said the staff shortages leading to the drop in response times was a direct result of the government cuts to police funding.

"This exposes the impact of the government cuts on front-line services. That is why we need someone to challenge the government on the cuts as police commissioner, rather than electing a cheerleader for the government."

Image caption Independent candidate John Norrie said a "safety net" was needed to identify the most urgent calls

Former flight lieutenant in the RAF Police, senior executive with P&O and Northamptonshire special constable, Jim MacArthur, UK Independence Party candidate, said he would want to ensure that the 999 call centre was properly staffed even if there were further budget cuts.

"The system worked fine when there were enough officers to do it. The staff were great and had been doing a fabulous job.

"Once you have cuts of 28% you can't expect to get the same service. There was a reduction and it was due to the government," he said.

Independent candidate businessman John Norrie, a former independent member of the Northamptonshire Police Authority, said the raw figures did not show the whole story and many of the unanswered calls would have been mistaken calls where the caller rang off moments after dialling 999 by mistake.

He added: "But there needs to be a safety net to catch real calls."

Image caption Lib Dem candidate Paul Varnsverry said the issue should not be "treated lightly"

He said he knew the police were addressing the concerns. "There is no question that the first contact with police is vital. It is an important issue," he said.

Former deputy leader of Northampton Borough Council Paul Varnsverry, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said he had met with the chief constable of Northamptonshire to discuss the issue. "Police recognise it is an issue," he said.

Mr Varnsverry added: "We have to keep a very close check on 999 calls. We want a quick response and for the call to be prioritised appropriately by the call centre staff. It is not an issue to be treated lightly."