Howard victims' hotline falls flat

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The Independent Online
A national telephone hotline for victims of crime - one of Michael Howard's "big ideas" - was used on just 238 occasions last year, it has been revealed.

The victim helpline was launched in November 1994 by the Home Secretary to enable victims to have a say in whether their attackers are released on parole or home leave.

Eight people in the Prison Service are trained to answer the Birmingham based helpline, which costs about pounds 12,000 a year to run. The Prison Service stressed yesterday that the hotline team had other jobs to do when not answering calls.

Mr Howard, in a parliamentary written answer, has revealed they receive an average of less than five calls a week.

Probation workers said the figures showed the service was a badly thought- out "sham". Even Prison Service staff have privately admitted the scheme has little or no practical effect.

The service was condemned as soon as Mr Howard announced it. Lawyers, probation officers, prison governors and victims said is was "impractical", "unworkable" and "a breach of natural justice".

Under the scheme helpline staff pass on information to prison governors. However, with more than 100,000 home leave and parole decisions made a year, most victims are not informed about any imminent release. Of those who did ring most were concerned about sexual and violent offences.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The hotline was announced as a big idea but was minimally resourced. It never had any real influence, as the infrequency of calls shows. The Home Secretary should offer real support to victims, not the sham of a hotline."

A Prison Service spokesman yesterday defended the helpline. "It is a valuable service to the families of victims and victims themselves," he said.

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