POLICE are doubling the number of switchboard staff at two controversial "call centres" following criticism.

The Durham force has faced a barrage of complaints from people claiming their calls to police stations often went unanswered and, if they did get through, they were unhappy with the operator's response.

The twin centres have operated for the past six months at Bishop Auckland police station and the force's headquarters, at Aykley Heads, Durham.

When they were introduced, it was suggested they would end the need to answer routine calls at individual police stations and give officers more time on front line duty.

However, following the launch, the number of calls handled by switchboard operators jumped from 51,000 in April to 66,000 in August, excluding the 7,000 999 calls a month, which go straight to specialist handlers.

At the same time, incidents requiring a police response rose by ten per cent to nearly 74,000.

Superintendent Barry Knevitt, the force's head of communications, said the switchboard had struggled to cope at peak times.

Now both centres will operate from 8am to 10pm seven days a week, instead of from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday.

There is also a new help desk manned by experienced officers to take pressure off operators between 8am and 9pm.

Supt Knevitt said: "Our difficulty in responding quickly has been a source of complaint at public meetings.

"It is also an issue raised regularly by county, district and parish councillors.

"At critical times of the day, we have struggled to give the service the public has every right to expect," he said.

However, we are taking steps to get the balance right. We believe the extra staff will ease pressure at peak times and speed up our response."

Hilary Armstrong, MP for North-West Durham and Government Chief Whip, and Darlington Borough Council leader Councillor John Williams are among a number of public figures meeting Chief Constable Paul Garvin over the issue.