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The 999 Call Charge Question Explained

When Scottish Fed Rep David Hamilton raised an issue on Twitter, the media reaction ignited. But here he explains why there must be a debate on 999 call charges - even if they are never introduced

“Maybe time to make 999 a premium rate number? If a genuine emergency you'd spend 50p to report it. Phone boxes exempt.”

Last week, I tweeted those words as part of a Twitter discussion highlighting the strain on our emergency telephone network. It was intended, in the context of that discussion, to highlight the potentially dangerous anomaly that the public is currently economically incentivised to use free 999 lines instead of expensive non-emergency lines to contact the police.

The abuse of the 999 system is not a new phenomenon. In its first week of operation in 1937 there were 91 hoax calls. But as 999 calls soar (Cleveland Police recorded a 35 per cent increase last year) there is less resilience to deal with these inappropriate and hoax calls. Compound this with savage budget cuts, a finite number of physical lines, a public seemingly impervious to current education messages and we have a problem.

The idea of charging for a 999 call isn’t mine, and neither I, nor the Scottish Police Federation, have ever sought to champion it. But January 2nd was a slow news day and the media presented this question as “a call for the introduction of such a charge”. For the avoidance of any doubt, it wasn’t.

In fact, charging for 999 calls is not a new idea but one that has been floated for years. The same principle was discussed prior to the introduction of 101 in England and Wales in 2011 when Home Office research into that number showed that “a small charge won’t discourage people calling, but will reduce the likelihood of it being used inappropriately”. Even at that time it was clear that many senior police officers feared that the 15p ‘101’ call charge would encourage even more frequent and inappropriate use of the free ‘999’ system.

The debate that followed has thrown up some good arguments for the status quo, and some which are less persuasive. Many have focused on an easily solvable detail - needing the emergency services when you have no mobile phone credit. But that misses the underlying issue. If you have 10 emergency lines all tied up with inappropriate calls then it doesn’t matter how much credit you have, you still won’t get through. It is the demand that has to be managed. That is the central problem, and the reason why the debate remains vital.

By contrast the strongest arguments against change are the possible disincentive for victims and witnesses. That is why ultimately the change can’t and won’t happen, certainly not without the engagement of the telecom companies (and associated costs) and the introduction of many other vital safeguards for vulnerable people and victims with genuine emergencies.

Helpfully, a consensus has emerged that we have a problem which needs to be addressed. That’s the big positive to come from this media coverage. The next steps? More effective public education, more consistent and robust enforcement and, perhaps most radically of all, free non-emergency calls? Only then can we allocate resources and priorities in a way which best serve the public interest.

David Hamilton is the Secretary for Tayside Police’s Joint Branch Board

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