The 999 emergency number is familiar to most of us.

Now, if members of the public need to contact the police about non-emergency matters, there is a new number they can ring – 101. This number is now in operation in every police force across England and Wales.

Most people are aware that, when in urgent need of the police, the ambulance service or the fire brigade, they should dial 999. That will not change. If a crime is happening, if someone suspected of crime is nearby, or if someone is injured, being threatened, or in danger, 999 is the number to ring.

But members of the public who are seeking advice about policing can now use the 101 number. Any call to 101 which is assessed as urgent will be transferred over to the 999 service.

We have all read about the times when people misuse the 999 service, ringing up about trivial things. One of the police services produced a list a while ago, headed by someone who rang for assistance because there was a spider in the bath and followed by a parent who could not persuade a son to get out of bed.

That kind of call – and of course the hoax or prank call – is a misuse of the service. Yet in 2010 the British Crime Survey discovered that only just over half the people questioned (54%) would know how to get in touch with the police if they wanted to discuss a non-urgent or routine matter of policing. Only a quarter of 999 calls to the police required an emergency response.

The 101 number is therefore a convenient way of ensuring people can make contact with local police. The scheme will reduce the pressure on the 999 service. Since it was introduced, more than two and a half million calls have been made to the 101 police number.

The 101 service costs 15p per call, irrespective of the time of day, or whether the caller uses a land line or a mobile.