Thousands of 101 police calls go unanswered as people describe waiting over an hour

Tap to watch a video report by ITV News Meridian's James Dunham

Even a non-emergency call to police shouldn’t take this long....

Those are the thoughts of several people who we’ve been in contact with over long waits for the 101 police number. Some experiencing queues lasting over an hour. None of them blame the frontline officers but feel the system is letting people down.

It comes as figures obtained by ITV News show tens of thousands of calls to the service, designed to take pressure off the 999 number, have either been abandoned or unanswered with 101 under its own strain over the last year or so.

What’s the cause? A spike in demand for the 999 service means operators (understandably) are giving priority to those life-threatening calls, job vacancies which need filling and, in some cases, people phoning the 101 service even though their call would be better dealt with by the health service or local council.

The 101 service is designed to take pressure off the 999 service Credit: ITV News Meridian

This combination has resulted in scenarios like this…

Ruth Richard-Hill was on the phone to 101 trying to report concerns over somebody’s welfare. She was on hold to 101 for over an hour (almost two)…

“If it wasn't so serious, it would be comical.

“My family started phoning 101, and I said don’t because what you're doing is you're blocking up the queue.

“But we handed the phone around while somebody went and made a cup of tea. Somebody else went to the lady. Somebody else went down at one point, make her something to eat, let the dogs out.

“And that's happening while you're waiting for an answer to a 101 call.”

101 phone service Credit: ITV News Meridian

Defence lawyer Stuart Matthews has waited an hour and 20 minutes. His job means he often needs to call 101 to find out the status of a case or to speak to a specific officer.

“It's quite difficult to try and do other work while you're on hold, although of course, that's what I try and do.

“And it's extremely frustrating when you're trying to report back to a client or get some information about a client's case and often in very trying circumstances for that client and understandably, they want an update. And I can give them one.

“Every single aspect of our lives has deteriorated. Trying to get any kind of service through 101, it is very difficult.

Lee Gallagher has made multiple reports to 101, and on one occasion, waited 45 minutes when phoning the service to report a lorry which had shed some its load over the road.

“It can be quite frustrating and an anxious wait. That front line service, to get the intelligence or report the crime through, if that isn't happening, the police are going to lose the community's trust and confidence in them...which makes the job for the frontline officers on the ground far more difficult.”

While an unanswered or abandoned call may translate into somebody reporting their call online there is a risk that people just give up.

Between 2021 and 2022 four in ten calls to Surrey Police went unanswered.

At Thames Valley Police it was three in ten and at Hampshire Police around a quarter of calls were abandoned.

Meanwhile, 17% of the quarter of a million calls recorded by Sussex Police were abandoned and at Kent Police - between February and October last year - more than a third of the quarter of a million calls were ended before being answered.

Each police force is making improvements and reducing waiting times.

  • Watch: Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner Donna Jones is challenged over waiting time figures. The hold time going up from around one minute towards the end of 2021 to 10 towards the end of last year

Superintendent Matt Bullivant, senior delivery manager at Thames Valley Police’s Contact Management department, said,

"Calling 101 is just one of the ways people contact us, and there are several reasons why 101 call waiting times can increase.

"We are currently receiving more 999 emergency calls and these will always be prioritised by our call handlers.

"We continue to answer the vast majority of 999 calls in under 10 seconds, having received more than 365,000 such calls last year.

"Furthermore, we still receive numerous 101 calls about non-police business and we work hard to make sure people know when to call us.

"We also encourage 101 callers to report non-urgent criminal matters online or visit one of our front counters to reduce the demand on our call handlers.

"While 101 is a non-emergency line, we recognise the importance of our communities being able to contact us when they need to.

"We have made investments to improve 101 answer times, which we are delivering over the course of the next year, including recruiting new staff into our Contact Management teams, opportunities for which can be found on our website.”

  • Watch: Superintendent Anna Skelton of Hampshire Police explains improvements coming in to the call handling service

A spokesperson for Surrey Police said,

"Our call abandonment rate is higher than we would like but we are encouraging some of this through a more detailed front message explaining alternative methods of contact including live chat, social media and online reporting.  

"Online reporting is increasing in popularity and we have seen a month on month increase during 2022.

"We acknowledge that some 101 callers may be hanging up, but figures also show that others are making a choice about which channels they wish to contact us on.

"The call handlers who deal with online enquiries receive the same training as those answering the phones.

"Unfortunately, there is currently no way to capture the number of 101 calls which are abandoned due to people choosing to report via live chat, social media and online reporting.

"We also saw a significant increase in our 999 demand last year (which was reflected nationally), and our available resources will always be directed to answer these calls as a priority (as evidenced by the queue time from the figures provided in the FOI response).

"Over the last two and half years we have faced challenges with a high number of staff absences and having to operate from a number of locations to adhere to social distancing – our Contact teams moved back to one location in March 2022 and this has already led to an improved 101 performance.

"We are actively recruiting new staff and the most recent intake of new recruits started their training this week. 

"We are constantly reviewing our performance to help us better understand the call demand and improve our efficiency.”

  • Watch: Kent Police Chief Superintendent Mark Nottage explains that every call matters

Chief Superintendent Gavin Dudfield, of Dorset Police, said.

"Dorset Police is committed to providing an excellent service to victims of crime and has ambitious plans to make significant investments in our public contact systems, with a commitment to reduce call times and respond to incidents quicker.

"We recognise that in some cases the time taken to answer 101 calls has been unsatisfactory and as a result of that, changes have been implemented with significant benefits already being demonstrated.

"Dorset Police answers 85.7 per cent of all non-emergency calls within 30 seconds, where a member of the triage team will initially identify any risks, vulnerabilities, or whether it should be an emergency call.

"Within this triage process, callers are offered alternative methods to report online and are provided with links where a wide variety of reporting forms are accessible. On average over 60 per cent of all non-emergency calls are resolved at this point.

"The remaining 101 calls referred to a call handler have seen substantial improvements with the latest figures for non-emergency call times reduced to an average answer time of 8.7 minutes.

"Dorset Police receives many calls that are not relating to police matters and we have been working to ensure the public know where to direct their call, which may be to another agency such as social services, the local authority, the fire service or the NHS.

"I would like to provide reassurance that genuine emergency calls will continue to receive a prompt response from the police. For non-emergency matters, contact can also be made online.

"The Force has also launched new ways that members of the public can engage with local officers from their neighbourhood policing team (NPT) to discuss issues impacting their communities."

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