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12 Feb 2003 : Column 313WH—continued

12 Feb 2003 : Column 314WH

Hoax Calls

4.9 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): I shall condense my speech as best I can. I hope that there is not another Division, because it may scupper the proceedings.

I am delighted to have secured the debate. My early-day motion 115 on the subject has attracted 100 names. I have also asked questions about it at Prime Minister's questions, business questions and to the Deputy Prime Minister. I have been trying for some time to debate hoax calls. My wife was a manager at a 999 centre, so I have some knowledge of the subject and various pieces of information have been fed to me about it.

Hoax calls can be the result of young children playing with the telephone who hit 999 by mistake, or genuine calls that have been made in error. Someone may have a mobile telephone in his pocket and the number nine button may have been pressed accidentally. That is common. Silent calls are also attributed to mobiles when the buttons are pressed accidentally. Accidental calls account for 20 per cent. of 999 calls.

I turn now to inappropriate calls. They can be described as calls made to the emergency services that are made with unreasonable, although not malicious, intentions. For example, people have asked to top up their mobile phone, to have their freezer fixed or for the football results. A man phoned up to report a fight between two squirrels in his garden. He was obviously nuts. A couple rang up to settle a custody dispute over a pet hamster. A drunken man asked the police for a lift home as he had spent all his money in the pub.

Although such calls concern me and are important and numerous, they are not the kind that I wish to address. I want to talk about malicious hoax calls to the emergency services with totally fabricated stories. In the first six hours of the first firefighters' strike in November, 55 people in London dialled 999 to report non-existent fires. In the first 12 hours of the strike in Northern Ireland there were 319 calls to the fire brigade, 43 per cent of which were hoaxes. In the first two hours of the dispute in my area of Strathclyde the police received 259 calls reporting fires, and a mere 20—less than 8 per cent.—were found to be genuine.

There is no doubt that certain events, such as the firefighters' dispute, drew attention to people who either wanted to score some kind of political point or who used it as an excuse to make malicious calls, but the truth is far from the impression given by the media that this is something that cropped up due to the firefighters' strike: it has been going on for years. Figures confirm the ongoing problem of hoax calls: hoax calls or false alarms are estimated to comprise between one third and a half of the 22 million emergency calls made every year.

Most shocking to me are the figures published by Strathclyde emergency services in May, which showed that between April 2001 and March 2002 a third of 398,000 calls received were silent. Another third were non-emergency calls; a fifth were timewasters; and nearly 4 per cent. were abusive. Overall, only 11.5 per cent. of the calls were considered to be appropriate. In 2001, more than 31 million calls were made to 999 throughout the UK, of which 40 per cent. were found to

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be false. Most hoax calls attempted to report non-existent fires and asked to be put through to the fire brigade. Such callers are statistically more likely to be intercepted by the operator and not put through, according to British Telecom. It says that of the malicious calls that do get through, 60 per cent. are to the police and 33 per cent. to the ambulance service. Only 7 per cent get through to the fire brigade, although such calls form the majority of hoax calls made overall.

British Telecom estimates that £32 million of taxpayers' money is spent on these hoax calls.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair): Order. The Clerk has just looked at the Standing Order that applies to the new sitting hours. We can add the time on, so the sitting will continue until 4.39.

John Robertson : Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. I shall slow down somewhat, although it will probably please everyone that I still have plenty to say. The human cost of hoax calls is most worrying. Diverting resources poses a clear risk to others in genuine need. The emergency services are obliged by law to respond to every emergency call, even when they know that all they are likely to find is an empty telephone box and a laughing group of youths some distance away. When a hoax call is made—

4.14 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.24 pm

On resuming—

John Robertson : A hoax call diverts resources away from those in genuine need and from situations where there may be loss of life. Crews responding to hoax calls are unavailable to answer genuine ones. Any delay in attending an emergency incident could simply mean the difference between life and death. Furthermore, the lives of those who are called out to deal with hoax calls are also threatened. I invite hon. Members to imagine a hoax call being made to the coastguard and a lifeboat being sent out. The lives of every crewman are in peril, as they always are when lifeboats are called out. If the call is a hoax, their lives are put in danger simply for someone's amusement.

Who on earth would make a hoax call? The perpetrators may be children who are still too naive to know the full potential consequences of their actions, but who still know the difference between right and wrong. It could be an adolescent who uses the call to impress his or her friends or to alleviate boredom, or an adult who is fully aware of what they are doing, but who makes the call with the intention of causing confusion, disorder or chaos.

I outlined the groups most likely to make hoax calls, but the main problem is that there is not just one type of person who makes them. The reasons for making hoax calls vary from the mundane to the downright evil. The most likely perpetrators are a group of youths who hang around phone boxes trying to impress their friends and

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who, more worryingly, often show an early fascination with fire that often leads to arson. The operator centres that field 999 calls to the emergency services now hire extra staff during the school holidays as a matter of course. Next week during recess, when the schools are on holiday, more people than usual will be working in the centres fielding 999 calls.

Greater Manchester police have shown initiative. They have a schools liaison programme that explains what pupils should do in an emergency and that discourages them from misusing the emergency service by emphasising the danger of making hoax calls. It is important that children are not deterred from making emergency calls should there be a good reason for them to do so. However, they need to be aware that making a hoax call can and will get them into a lot of trouble. Education programmes make the young think about their actions. Most hoax calls are made by 10 and 11-year-olds. By that age, a pattern of offending may already have begun to develop, so we need to consider more ways of working with children of primary school age to deter them from making their first hoax call. I advocate slightly tougher action for teenagers who have developed a tendency to make hoax calls. In some community-based projects in inner-city areas, young arsonists have been taken to burns units in local hospitals to see the results of a fire.

I shall deal in more detail with adult offenders. Hoax calls can be made in three different ways: from a public phone box, as I described earlier; from a mobile phone; or by using a registered land line. Even if the caller attempts to withhold their number by dialling 141, it is easy for the number and location of the caller to be traced. The technology is in place virtually to eliminate hoax calls from mobile phones. A false 999 call can result in a text message that warns the caller that the false call has been traced from their phone. That is usually enough to scare off most hoax callers; some 90 per cent. do not call again.

Disconnection is used as the next step for those who continue to offend. As part of a local initiative in South Yorkshire, the fire and rescue service has teamed up with local police, the ambulance service and mobile phone service providers to cut off hoaxers at source. Ultimately, making a hoax call to the emergency services is improper use of a public telecommunications system and an offence under section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984. The penalty for hoax call offences is up to six months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. However, although the Act was introduced nearly 20 years ago, it is only recently that anyone has been prosecuted under its provisions. Under the 1984 Act, if an individual is identified as a persistent 999 hoax caller, the usual practice is for the police to pass the details of the calls to the service providers, who then deal with the case individually.

The fact that the 1984 Act is not being used more extensively gives me cause for concern. I will give an example of the discrepancies in punishment given to hoax callers. In one case, an 18-year-old who was arrested for sending more than 2,000 hoax 999 calls in 26 hours using a radio handset that he had stolen from an ambulance service was sentenced to 240 hours community service. In another case, a 17-year-old was given a custodial sentence of one year after making a hoax bomb threat. The 17-year-old was prosecuted

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under the anti-terrorism legislation because of the category of his offence, whereas the 18-year-old, who I would suggest had committed the greater misdeed, was prosecuted under the telecommunications legislation, which tends towards more lenient sentences.

I welcome the pilot scheme adopted by four police forces in August, which gave powers to issue spot fines of £40 to £80 for those found hoax-calling. I hope that that will shock offenders into ceasing to make further hoax calls, but I am not sure that those powers go far enough.

There are several areas that I would like the Government to address as immediate priorities. A more holistic approach is needed to discourage people from making hoax calls. Will the Minister tell me whether any initiatives are planned to collate and share examples of best practice, as happens in other areas of Government? Ambulance and fire services and police authorities around the UK could be invited to submit evidence to show the progress and effectiveness of particular education liaison programmes. If there are no plans for such an initiative, perhaps that could be considered.

We need a nationally co-ordinated education programme aimed at young children, based on examples of good practice from around the country. I would also like to see a tougher approach taken towards adolescents, whose first hoax call may be the start of the slippery slope into the world of progressively more dangerous crime. We could even consider the imposition of on-the-spot fines for parents in such cases.

There should be greater use of the existing legislation that was designed to combat hoax calls. Could the Minister explain why the 1984 Act is not being applied in more cases of hoax calls to the emergency services?

We need a tougher approach to repeat adult offenders. Prompt disconnection should occur when the call is made from their own telephone line or mobile phone, and custodial sentences and hefty fines should be imposed if hoaxing is repeated. Perhaps we need a specific charge or crime of committing a hoax call, with tougher sentencing attached than under the 1984 Act.

At present, making a hoax call to the fire brigade is a criminal offence, whereas making such a call to the ambulance service, the police or the coastguard is not. Surely a hoax call to the ambulance service is most likely to result in loss of life, because time is of the essence to reach someone in need. We need a new criminal offence of making hoax calls to any of the emergency services. We need to communicate much more successfully the message that hoax calls cost lives, and that those who show such a wanton disregard for life will be much more severely punished. I welcome some of the new initiatives that the Government have pioneered, but I believe that we have a long way to go before we see the necessary reduction in hoax calls. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing this debate after trying for some time, and on the way in which he presented the case. In particular, the information from his own

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sources brought to life the nature of the problem about which he is concerned. His speech was informative and measured.

The debate today is timely. The heightened terrorist threat means that all of us are anxious to ensure that the emergency services can devote their time and energy to dealing with real emergencies without being hindered by malicious or other hoax calls. I agree completely with the central thrust of my hon. Friend's argument, which is that the hoax calls can be very dangerous, because whenever a fire engine or ambulance is taking the time to answer a call that is not genuine, it is not able to respond to a genuine call. In other words, a hoax call is not a harmless joke: it threatens public safety and distracts the 999 call handlers from their work.

My hon. Friend talked about the need to take tougher action against hoax callers, and I understand his concerns. The Government's view is clear: when someone is proven to have made a hoax call, they should be prosecuted. On the penalties, the Telecommunications Act 1984, to which my hon. Friend referred, provides for criminal sanctions. It states that a person who uses the public telephone system to cause annoyance or needless anxiety to another, or who passes on a message that they know to be false, can, on conviction, face a fine of up to £5,000 or up to six months' imprisonment. I am aware of at least one case in which someone was prosecuted under the 1984 Act and received a custodial sentence.

John Robertson : But does my hon. Friend accept that that was due to the increased publicity provided by the media? The case that he is talking about involved malicious calls, which, believe it or not, are different from hoax calls. A malicious call is when someone telephones a person and harasses them. That, primarily, is what malicious calls are about.

Hilary Benn : I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend makes. I was simply trying to make it clear that the necessary criminal sanctions for dealing with hoax calls are in place under the 1984 Act and—for reasons of history that I think he would accept—the Fire Services Act 1947. As he will be aware, the 1947 Act provides the lesser penalties of up to a fine of £1,000 or three months' imprisonment. The Telecommunications Act 1984 has a wider range of penalties, which are not insignificant, and are available for use.

As my hon. Friend recognised, punishment under criminal law is not the only measure that we should take to reduce the dangerous menace of hoax calls. Public education is vital. I was interested in the point that he made about pooling examples of good practice, and I undertake to think about it and discuss it with officials. I shall give an example from personal experience. A few months ago, I visited a youth offending team in north Westminster. One of the approaches that it took with young people who had been making such calls was to get them to visit the fire brigade, and perhaps the ambulance service, too. That is similar to the example that my hon. Friend gave of the visit to the burns unit.

The visits allowed those who engaged in the activity, and particularly those in the younger age groups, to understand the impact of such calls, how they affect those trying to do a professional and extremely important job, and how those calls get in the way of those very important public servants coming to our aid when we need them most.

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Clearly, the issue has achieved greater public attention and salience in recent times because of the fire service dispute. Normally, the percentage of hoax calls across the emergency services runs between 5 and 8 per cent.—a high figure. The percentage of hoax calls during the recent fire service dispute makes interesting reading. I know that hoax calls during a fire dispute are particularly malicious, because the level of fire cover may not be as high as it is normally, but during the eight-day strike from 22 to 28 November 2002, the percentage of hoax calls was about 7 per cent. During the 24-hour strike from 21 to 22 January, the figure was 5.8 per cent., and during the 48-hour strike from 28 to 30 January, it was 3.6 per cent. The rate was decreasing, but during the latest strike from 1 to 3 February, the figure went up marginally to 4.2 per cent.

Clearly, there were regional variations within the overall figures, but they show a gradual and welcome decline from the 7 per cent. figure recorded in the first dispute. That did not happen by accident.

John Robertson : I have heard those figures before. How many calls were filtered out before they got through? Traditionally, calls to fire services are filtered out by operator services. If he remembers, I said that only 7 per cent. of hoax calls get through to the fire services, whereas 60 per cent. get through to the police and 33 per cent. get through to the ambulance services. The publicity about the problem was amazing.

Hilary Benn : I do not know whether that information is available, but if it is I shall write to my hon. Friend. The point that he made at the end of his intervention is right: the fire service dispute raised awareness of the problem. It has been of particular concern to Ministers, which is why my fellow Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), issued a press release at the time of the first dispute making clear the risks of being brought to account for making a hoax call, such as being disconnected. That important sanction was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland and backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Ambulance Service Association and the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association.

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At the time, Ministers also asked the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to disseminate to their colleagues the importance of identifying quickly and prosecuting those who make malicious calls. As a result, many hoax callers have been caught, and as we have seen, many have been processed through the court system. We have also worked with the telecommunications companies through the 999 liaison committee which brings together all interested parties to devise a code of practice to ensure that people who use their mobile phones to make hoax calls will be cut off. With the increased reliance of many of us on mobile phones, that can be quite a sanction, especially for young people, whose mobile phones may be an important part of their life.

Although in Scotland the issue is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, I know that my colleagues in the Executive thought that, in general, the public responded well, which resulted in a reduced number of 999 fire-related calls during the industrial action. During the first of the eight-day strikes, steps were taken to try to minimise the number of hoax calls through an information campaign. The raised awareness of the damage and danger caused by hoax calls has been a positive consequence of the fire service dispute. Hoax calls have declined, although I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes about the context within which the figures were compiled.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's persistence in drawing this important problem to the public's attention and having secured today's debate so that it can be highlighted again. We must now ensure that we continue to drive the message home using machinery such as our links with the telecommunications industry in the 999 liaison committee. In the end, the issue is one of public safety and enabling the emergency services to do the job that they are employed to do on our behalf. Those who seek to divert them from that activity by making such calls bear a heavy responsibility. As a society, we must make clear the danger of hoax calls: they prevent the emergency services from doing the job for which we need them.

Question put and agreed to.

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