The "shop-a-cheat" hotline, aimed at cutting the annual pounds 3bn fraud bill, is only one of dozens of schemes - involving anyone from schoolchildren to milkmen - nurtured over the past 10 years, in which people are increasingly being asked to spy on their neighbours.
The latest initiative urges the public to snitch on claimants they believe are cheating the system. However, it was immediately criticised by the Unemployment Unit, an independent body, which said a record number of claimants had actually had their benefits cut - and that many labelled as "cheats" were not cheating at all.
A culture of informing has developed in Britain over the past decade, fuelled in part by the success of Neighbourhood Watch schemes. There are now 143,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes covering 6 million homes in England and Wales. Police say they have been a great success, deterring criminals from operating in participating areas and providing intelligence to help catch them when they do.
The schemes' acceptance made it easier to ask the public to become more involved in informing. First, in 1988, came Crimestoppers, a charitable trust set up by the business community in London in conjunction with the police. It provides an anonymous route for informants to pass on intelligence without having to come in direct contact with the police. It now operates throughout the country and offers rewards for those who provide information. So far, tip-offs from the public have resulted in the arrest of 16,591 criminals and the recovery of almost pounds 26.5m in stolen goods.
More recently, however, the Government and the police have been anxious to recruit more controversial informants. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has encouraged young people to inform on other young people by joining Neighbourhood Watch schemes, and has introduced "patrolling with a purpose" proposals. Football fans have been asked to ring a hooligan hotline about the activities of thugs, and drug users have been urged to "rat on a rat" and expose dealers.
In schemes called "Milkwatch" and "Lookout Post", milkmen and postal workers have been given mobile phones and two-way radios by police forces in Hampshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, to report suspicious people and activities while on their rounds. In Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, postmen are given pounds 10 each time they find a stolen car identified from a police list; and in Wales, Dyfed-Powys police have set up radio links with electricity and gas workers. In Torbay, Devon, taxi and bus drivers are regularly given radio messages by police searching for stolen cars and wanted criminals.
It all sounds quite sinister, but should we be worried? According to those one might expect to raise fears over civil liberties, the answer is no. Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, said yesterday that it was unconcerned about the growth of informing. "We don't see it as a breach of civil liberties or a human rights issue," said a spokeswoman. So, what if the man who came to read your meter told the police about the cannabis plant in your living room? "Quite simply," the spokeswoman said, "you shouldn't have one there. It's a criminal offence."
Doug Henderson, a Labour home affairs spokesman, said: "If these schemes were a real threat to civil liberties, then we would be concerned, but I am not sure that they are. Most of them seem to be gimmicks designed to make it look as if the Government is doing something about crime."
Before communism lost its hold over the Eastern Bloc, it was normal for internal security services to employ utilities workers to spy on the population. However, according to Peter Sommer, of the London School of Economics, an expert in intelligence-gathering, there is a subtle difference in Britain.
"There is a difference between asking someone to keep an eye open generally, and asking them specifically to keep an eye on Mr X," he said. "I don't think there is anything to worry about at this level. For some people, it brings back memories of the comfortable world of Dixon of Dock Green. It means they can have a quiet word with the village bobby they thought they had lost long ago."
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