Victim helpline 'a shambles'

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MICHAEL HOWARD'S Victim Helpline has gone the way of John Major's Cones Hotline, Prison Service figures released last week revealed. Just one call a day was made to the phoneline in its first six months and its staff has been cut by two-thirds as a result.

The much-publicised line was set up at the end of December after the press highlighted cases of prisoners committing offences while on home leave.

Mr Howard, the Home Secretary, said victims of crime would be able to call and find out what was happening to criminals in jail. They could also stop a prisoner being let out for breaks or on parole by providing information on any threats he had sent them.

"My message will be clear," said Mr Howard last November. "If there is any doubt, don't let out. We need to ensure that the criminal justice system works to protect the public and victims, rather than criminals."

But the Prison Service said that between the end of December and the end of May, just 155 calls had been made to the line. The bill for the service is pounds 23,400 to date - the equivalent of each call costing an average of pounds 151.

Originally three people manned the phones. Lack of interest has led to two of the operators being assigned to other duties. The Prison Service was unable to say whether any convicts had their parole stopped because of helpline information.

The cones hotline did much better - receiving 8,000 calls about unnecessary roadwork cones in its first two years. But figures released earlier this year showed that the complaints had led to the removal of cones on just three occasions.

Critics of Mr Howard yesterday nicknamed the service the "Victim Flopline".

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Time and again we have seen Mr Howard respond to the latest headlines by rushing through ill thought-out proposals.

"Instead of properly worked through measures, we see here yet another misconceived idea ending in shambles."

Counselling group Victim Support said that it had been told by civil servants that some calls to the line had been from members of the public expressing their views as to whether Myra Hindley should be released.

However, a Prison Service spokeswoman said there were no plans to close the line. "It provides a useful service for victims which was not there in the past."