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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 14:50 GMT
Q&A: Sarah's Law

The conviction of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne has raised the issue of whether the UK needs a "Sarah's Law". BBC Legal Affairs correspondent Jon Silverman examines some of the key issues.

What is 'Sarah's Law' ?
It's a collective term used to describe the package of changes which the parents of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, along with the News of the World newspaper have been campaigning for. Most of the changes have been implemented already (such as reducing the time limit by which sex offenders have to register from 14 days to 3) - but the crucial element - controlled public access to the Sex Offender Register - is what the government continues to resist.

What is the current system for registering sex offenders in the UK?
The 1997 Sex Offenders Act made it obligatory for people convicted of a range of sexual crimes to register with the police within 14 days of their release from prison. That has now been amended to 72 hours. Those who don't register are subject to up to five years in prison and/or a fine.

Why do the Paynes want it changed?
The Paynes say that decisions on notifying local people about paedophiles in the community rest with the professionals - ie police/probation - and this does not give adequate protection. They want anyone to have a legal right to ask to see the register.

What is the government's position?
The government says it has strengthened the operation of the register and set up multi-agency public protection panels (Mapps) to manage high risk offenders in the community. But it does not agree with Sarah's Law a ) because it might lead to vigilante action and b ) because it could drive paedophiles underground.

How quickly could we see the new system in place, if it is agreed?
The new system - ie the Mapps - are already in place (set up under CJ and Court Services Act, 2001). Each police/probation area has one and they make decisions about the best way to monitor/supervise those offenders considered a risk to the community - from a sexual or violent point of view. The home secretary announced on Sunday that he intended to allow community "representatives" ( parents etc ) to sit on the Mapps. This system is unlikely to be in place until 2003.

Who would manage the system?
The system is the responsibility of the National Probation Service whose director is Eithne Wallis.

What is the experience in countries which DO publish the whereabouts of sex offenders?

The best information comes from the United States where Megan's Law has been in operation in some states since the early 1990's. The experience there is that the proportion of sex offenders who register - latest research says about 84% - is considerably lower than the UK, where it is 97%. However, in some places ( eg. Washington State ) community notification has worked quite well without the kind of violence predicted in the UK. Some experts believe that Britain lags behind some parts of the US in this area.

See also:

13 Dec 01 | UK
Do we need a 'Sarah's Law'?
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