Non-emergency '999' service to have 10p charge

The new telephone number - likely to be 101 - will be available next year to report antisocial behaviour and ask for help in matters such as dealing with abandoned cars. The Home Office plans to set up pilots in seven areas of the country next year before rolling out the system by 2008.

While it is well known that the Home Office was seeking to set up a second police number, it was only revealed yesterday that it wanted to charge for the service. The police and Home Office are expected to come under criticism for the 10p level, which could deter some people from seeking help. A Home Office spokeswoman said the new number would be for reporting "non-emergency crimes and anti social behaviour". Examples given include reporting abandoned vehicles; rowdiness and drinking in the street; and disturbing behaviour by a person walking along the road.

The new number could also be used by people wanting information about prosecutions, or to report lost pets or crimes such as vandalism.

Under the planned system, anyone ringing 999 with a non-emergency matter will be referred to the 101 service. Alternatively, if a member of the public rang the new number with something that required immediate police action, they would be put on to 999.

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, said the Home Office had suggested the charge should be reviewed once "volume and usage" of the new service became clear. Ofcom is consulting on the proposal until 22 December.

The revenue would help to fundthe 101 service, the Home Office said. British Telecom's basic charge for any national call is 3p a minute during the day and five and a half pence for up to an hour in the evening and at the weekend. There is a basic minimum charge for any call of 5p. The Home Office said the charge was being proposed after discussion with the police and local authorities who believe a small levy will deter time-wasters but not put off people with genuine need. The new number may eventually offer access to other services, such as Victim Support, the NHS and local authorities.

The non-emergency number is being introduced because of the misuse of the 999 service. It has seen its annual number of calls rise by 40 per cent to 10 million a year in six years, largely fuelled by the massive increase in the ownership of mobile phones. Scotland Yard estimates that only 20 per cent of its 999 calls are emergencies, a figure which is likely to be mirrored elsewhere.

A Home Office spokeswoman said yesterday: "The preferred option of 10p per call was chosen following consultation with stakeholders and research with members of the public. "The research indicated that a charge would not deter people from calling the service."

Meanwhile, the best and worst performing police forces in England and Wales were named. Humberside, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, the Metropolitan Police and Cambridgeshire forces were at the bottom of performance assessments published by the Home Office. West Mercia, West Midlands, Hampshire and Surrey were the best performing.

All 43 police forces in England and Wales were assessed in seven categories: reducing crime, investigating crime, promoting safety, providing assistance, citizen focus, resource use and local policing. Overall, 9 per cent of results were classed as poor, 40 per cent as fair, 44 per cent as good and 7 per cent as excellent.

In 56 per cent of cases, forces were improving performance. In 5 per cent, performance had deteriorated.

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