And the powers that be said: 'Shop thy neighbour'

Anonymous hotlines can help to fight crime but, as Graham Ball and David Irvine report, they can also encourage malice and misery; TV presenter Monty Don's life has been blighted by a snooper who falsely accused him of fraud
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The Independent Online
On Thursday December, at Maidstone Crown Court, Anthony Spencer stood in the dock awaiting sentence. He had been described by Judge David Croft QC as the "executive director" in a bootlegging operation that had shifted an estimated pounds 4m of duty-free drinks and tobacco from French Channel port warehouses on to the home market.

The gang responsible had nicknamed themselves the Libyans, possibly because one of them bore a resemblance to Colonel Gadaffi. In reality, they were a group of 10 ex-miners from the Barnsley area.

They had come to Kent and stayed in out-of-season holiday chalets while they ran a shuttle of hired vans to France. The booty was then sold on the black market.

The "Libyans" were undone by an anonymous caller dialling a special Customs and Excise hotline. Anthony Spencer was sentenced to five years. The informer was recommended for a reward.

The "Libyans" informer was not unusual. Britain is turning into a nation of snoopers. Shop-your-neighbour telephone hot lines, which began as a desperate attempt to prevent terrorism in the 1970s, now receive more than half a million calls a year on subjects ranging from smoky car exhausts and benefit fraud to robbery with violence.

In what is believed to be the first investigation ever carried out into this growing network, the Independent on Sunday has discovered that there are now hundreds of dedicated "no-questions-asked" informer lines in operation across the country, providing the police and regulatory authorities with details of alleged rule breakers.

Among the most successful is the Benefit Fraud hotline. Set up this year by Social Security Secretary, Peter Lilley, amid much criticism, it gets 8,000 calls a week.

The Crimestoppers Trust is receiving 75,000 calls a year, and even the Environment Agency's hotline on poachers and polluters receives nearly 30,000.

These schemes collate sensitive information on more than a dozen different categories of crime and misdemeanour yet no official body monitors their development. Although no mainstream political party has debated the trend, for fear of being labelled "soft on crime", concern is growing over the culture of anonymous denunciation which the hotlines encourage.

Civil rights organisations say that as citizens in Britain have no legal right to privacy, these informer lines pose a unique threat to the individual. John Wadham, director of Liberty, said: "Co-operation between the public and the police is the only way to solve crime.The danger with anonymous tip-offs is that too many innocent people are wrongly accused of crimes, either because of mistakes or malice. The lack of adequate safeguards and proper respect for the human rights of those accused, within the criminal justice system, makes that danger all the more real."

One person unjustly denounced to the DSS is the television presenter Monty Don. He claimed benefit for almost a year, following the collapse of a business venture.

During this time an anonymous letter to the Income Support department claimed that he had a large sum of money in the bank from the sale of his house and that he owned another property worth pounds 500,000.

The information was false, but a benefit fraud investigator told Mr Don they were obliged to follow up all such accusations and that most proved accurate.

The case against Mr Don was dismissed but it left deep scars. "It blighted our lives for months, lost us nearly six months of benefits we were entitled to at a time when we were almost starving and, worst of all, sowed seeds of suspicion within a small community that mean even now, four years later, we no longer trust anybody," said Mr Don.

Lawyer Guy Dehn, who helped to set up Public Concern At Work, a charitable trust which assists whistle-blowers, agrees that anonymity is not the best policy. "In the workplace an anonymous informer is very vulnerable to punitive action and discovery, but for the state anonymous informants provide a cheap way of gathering information and instilling a fear of detection.We believe that with the exception of serious and violent crime the emphasis should be on confidentiality. Over-reliance on anonymous informer lines debases the shared sense of what is right or wrong."

David Donnison of Glasgow University, the former chair of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, is also concerned.

"The Benefit Fraud line could be used to stoke up hostility towards the poorest people in society and encourage an unattractive habit of informing. There must be more civilised ways of dealing with fraud."

Whatever the rule being broken, someone, somewhere wants to know about it

Drugs and smuggling

HM Customs and Excise receive approximately 2,000 'useful' anonymous calls on drugs each year. In 1996 they led to more than four major seizures of a kilo or more of class A drugs, and 25-30 smaller discoveries. Anonymous tip-offs are also invited on illegal imports of tobacco and big quantities of duty-frees.

Terrorism

The police began their anti-terrorism hotline in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Details of the numbers of calls and resulting convictions are never disclosed.

Benefits

The DSS launched the service last August to help recoup pounds 3bn claimed illegally each year in benefits. Officials expected about 2,000 calls a week; they received almost four times that.

Robbery and violence

Crimestoppers Trust, a registered charity independent of the police, has been operating its informer line since 1988. In the first half of last year they received 27,107 calls; this year the figure was up to 37,703. More than pounds 27m worth of stolen goods have been recovered and 18,109 arrests made since the scheme began.

Police corruption

This month the Metropolitan Police unveiled the first in-house whistle- blowing scheme aimed at stamping out fraud and unethical behaviour in the force.

Building swindles

About 40 callers a week use this Customs and Excise service to provide information on VAT fraud in the construction industry.

Noisy neighbours, rubbish dumpers and vandals

Local lines are run by the environmental health departments of councils to encourage informers.

Poaching and pollution

The Environment Agency has continued a scheme begun by the National Rivers Authority to help stamp out illegal fishing, pollution, flooding and waste dumping.

Local fraud

Next year about 60 more local authorities across Britain are to join the Fraudwatch scheme, which was started by Reading Council to track down fraudsters and petty thieves. The scheme has received the enthusiastic backing of Jack Straw, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman. The 28 present members have logged 8,000 calls 'of good quality' so far.

Smoky exhausts

A special hotline by the Department of Transport and the Vehicle Inspectorate allows the public to inform on cars and lorries that are emitting potentially dangerous fumes.

The Lottery

Anyone who spots scratch cards being sold to under-16s can inform Camelot through an anonymous phone line.

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