Witness protection scheme launched

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Media captionSupergrass Paul: ''You feel like you have no-one, you have to start again under false pretences''

The UK's first national witness protection scheme has been launched to overhaul the currently "inconsistent" approach to keeping vulnerable people safe, the Ministry of Justice has said.

It said more than one in four collapsed prosecutions last year were because witnesses refused to give evidence.

Current services were "variable" and lacked "uniform standards", it added.

Victims' minister Helen Grant said witnesses whose lives were in danger needed "the best possible protection".

Witnesses to the 2007 murder of Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones as well as those who gave evidence about the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle pickers tragedy, in Lancashire, are among those who have been given protected persons status.

In 2009 and 2010, 18% of witnesses who went to court to give evidence said they or their families had felt intimidated at some point while 40% said they were worried about coming into contact with the defendant or their supporters.

The UK Protected Persons Service has been introduced thanks to a one-off £211,000 investment from the MoJ and Home Office.

The MoJ, which said £19m a year was currently spent on protecting witnesses, said the new system would introduce national quality standards and ensure better co-ordination across "existing fragmented services".

It would also promote better intelligence-sharing between police forces, the MoJ added.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which has long supported a move to a national system, has previously said the change would make the system more attractive and would lead to more people coming forward to give evidence.

Responding to the announcement, Assistant Chief Constable Andy Cooke said it would "strengthen the fight against organised crime".

Tory MP Mrs Grant said witnesses were "the unsung heroes of society - especially those who could be jeopardising their own safety".

"I cannot thank them enough for the vital role they play in bringing criminals to justice," she said. "We are clear any witness whose life could be in danger must be given the best possible protection."

And she later told BBC Radio 5 live: "We want to do everything we possibly can so that they know if they do take that decision and come forward they will be protected, supported and cared for wherever they are in this country.

"At the moment we have a system which is good but it's patchy and it's inconsistent and often witnesses don't know, if they do come forward, exactly what protection they will get."

Image caption Joan and John Stirland were killed despite moving to a "safe house"

Mrs Grant said people wanted to be witnesses because "it's a matter of doing the right thing - people call it a civic duty, some others just feel it's telling the truth".

In February, it was revealed the Met Police and the Crown Prosecution Service paid a family more than £600,000 in damages and costs after a child witness was identified to a gang.

The boy, 16, had been promised anonymity to give evidence about a violent attack, but details were inadvertently passed to gang members.

In August 2010, meanwhile, a coroner called for a review of systems to protect vulnerable witnesses following the 2004 murder of Joan and John Stirland at their home in Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire.

They were shot in retaliation after their son, Michael O'Brien, killed a friend of the notorious Gunn family, headed by crime boss Colin Gunn.

The couple fled to Lincolnshire eight months before their deaths after shots were fired at their former home in Carlton, Nottingham.

A jury at their inquest found Nottinghamshire Police failed to share with officers in Lincolnshire - or properly act on - intelligence about the threat posed by Colin Gunn's gang.

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