How to play the snitching game, and win

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The Independent Online
He may lack the charisma of the Prime Minister, the charm of Michael Howard, the straightforwardness of John Redwood and the manly good looks of John Gummer, but Peter Lilley - the long-serving Social Security Secretary - is moving mountains in his own unspectacular fashion. His latest initiative, the "beat-a-cheat" phoneline, has been hugely successful, attracting 1,650 calls on its first day - 200 within the first hour. And there are still 140 shopping days till Christmas.

It is churlish of me, I know, to cavil, but I do want to register three minor disappointments with Mr Lilley's excellent scheme. I do so in a constructive spirit, and look forward to his response. The first is that many of us either do not actually know any benefit cheats, or are unsure of the rules and therefore cannot participate in the phone-in with any high degree of confidence. Thus a lot of good citizens will miss out on the important business of doing one's duty (especially since, as in the paraphrased words of Wilde's Cecily Cardew, there are times when doing one's duty is a positive pleasure). Publication in the local paper of the transcripts of calls would enable the rest of us to join in, and a simple checklist of what to look out for in your neighbours' behaviour could surely be distributed to every household by the Royal Mail (or its successor).

My second - and more substantial - point is that the idea should be extended to many more areas of malfeasance and anti-social activity. The ability to call a government official, give one's name merely as Kevin or Shirley, and to point to the breaking of laws and the flouting of conventions, all the while knowing that action will be taken, is a powerful weapon in the hands of responsible citizens. For instance, I propose a dog-dirt hotline (to be called "pooper-snoopers"), where aggrieved parties could simply follow owners and their miscreant animals back to the front door of number 32, pick up the mobile and tell all to the proper authorities. Its slogan could be, "Something nasty appeared on your shoes? Ring and tell us the news." The scourge of canine defecation would be stamped out in a fortnight.

Consider also the difficulties that the Child Support Agency sometimes has in tracing the errant fathers of certain children. Often their single mothers will not (and in some rare cases, cannot) name the man responsible. But a hotline, linked to a television programme along the lines of Crimewatch, inviting viewers to examine photos of kids, and to name the father, would act as a considerable deterrent to non-disclosure. Local councils could follow up reports of skip-abusers, sofa-dumpers and wrong-day rubbish putter-outers. Al fresco urinators, exhibitionists and streakers could be traced on the strength of confidential descriptions of their characteristics.

Whilst it is not strictly a matter for government, Mr Lilley and colleagues might like to encourage a Daily Mail adultery line, aimed at revealing those who threaten the fabric of the family by cheating on their spouses - and shaming them in public. I know several public-spirited old ladies, with a lot of time on their hands, who could furnish such a facility with large amounts of information, not all of it merely speculative. I would suggest slogans such as "clobber-a-knobber", or "tighten up on loose screws".

However, I am not unaware of the pitfalls of such a wholescale adoption of community-information-databanking (as snitching is now called). For it does rather suggest a reliance upon higher authority to sort things out for us. Instead of bearding our neighbour directly about his dog, or her choice of night-time visitor, we will rely instead upon the comfortable anonymity of the telephone call. In time this may become a form of welfare dependence, robbing us of our capacity for action.

So my third suggestion is of a massive extension of the principle of citizen's arrest, encouraging the law-abiding and upright person to tackle the perpetrator directly, and only having recourse to the phone line in extremis. New powers would include limited rights to enter and search a suspect's premises (with a warrant signed by a local notable, such as a journalist or doctor). To limit vexatious actions, such rights would be confined to next-door, or immediately opposite, neighbours. There would also be an indemnity for those having to use physical force to rectify situations - as in the example, say, of removing an ancient armchair from one's skip and returning it to its original premises.

Do these things, Peter, and your name will live in history, alongside those of Virginia Bottomley and Tony Newton. Go for it.