Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 00:04 UK

Will sex offender pilots work?

A march against a sex offender in Paulsgrove
Paulsgrove: Marches to force out sex offender, August 2000

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs reporter

This week, EastEnders on BBC One begins the first ever predatory paedophile storyline in a British soap.

Bianca's knight in shining armour, Tony, turns out to be more interested in her teenage daughter Whitney.

He has been preying on a vulnerable mum to get closer to a girl he has coveted since they first met.

Monday also sees four constabularies launch pilots of a sex offender disclosure scheme.

Paedophile

Nobody is pretending that these pilots are going to be easy - but ministers believe the pilots may help stop predatory paedophiles before they strike.

Tony from Eastenders
EastEnders: Predator grooms family to get near teenager

The disclosure scheme is aimed at parents, carers or guardians who might be concerned about someone who has access to their children.

The publicity literature in the four areas focuses on a scenario where a new boyfriend has come into the life of a single mum.

But it covers other circumstances, such as a neighbour who plays with the kids or someone offering informal sports coaching.

Once a parent has made a request, police look into the individual's background. If they find something suspicious, they may decide to tell the parent.

At the same time, the individual should expect a knock on the door from officers involved in the local protection schemes used to monitor sex offenders.

Home Officer minister Vernon Coaker, who has led the work on the pilots, says there will be a presumption of disclosure - but only if it is "necessary and proportionate" to protect children.

In other words, even if police find something serious in the background, they may not tell the parent if they conclude the individual does not pose a risk.

Confidentiality clause

What's more, parents will be told that they must not share the information they are given with anyone else - and if they do they could face civil, or in extreme circumstances, criminal action.

This confidentiality clause is designed to stop a paedophile panic spreading through a community.

Some probation officers are among those who are sceptical that this could be made to work. Harry Fletcher of the probation union Napo predicts it will be very difficult to stop one parent passing information to another.

And it's in that scenario that we could see a repeat of ugly vigilante action.

In August 2000, amid a News of the World's campaign to name and shame paedophiles, the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth erupted with violence as mobs targeted a man identified as a local sex offender.

The paper subsequently suspended its naming of the men amid criticism from police, child protection charities and embarrassing news coverage of the mob around the world.

But its campaign for a "Sarah's law" went on. Harry Fletcher of Napo is among those who believe that these trials are a "sop" to calls from certain tabloid newspapers.

The campaign began after the murder of Sarah Payne by Roy Whiting, a convicted sex offender who snatched the eight-year-old after she had been playing in a field with her siblings.

Sarah's mother, Sara, began lobbying for parents to be given information about the whereabouts of offenders - and she remains committed to that cause today.

Megan's law?

Sarah's law is partially modelled on the USA's Megan's law. This obliges states to publish the location of every released ex offender - California's Megan's law website allows searching by location, such as offenders living near schools or parks.

The Megan's Law website for California
Megan's Law: Check whereabouts on website

Sara Payne says she has never called for a British-style Megan's law, arguing that it would provide information whether it is wanted or not. Her preferred option would be "controlled access" with sanctions against people who abuse the information.

Ms Payne says that such a law would put power in the hands of parents, remove fear and the shadows which sex offenders use to keep their activity secret.

Ultimately, however, these four pilots are by no stretch of the imagination anywhere close to Megan's Law - and they fall well short of Sara Payne's demands.

Some critics say what we are left with is a "sop" to the tabloids - a halfway house that looks like it is doing something but may achieve very little.

But senior officers who have helped design the pilots say they should be given time to work.

Encouraging signs

The BBC understands that at least one sex offender has volunteered information to the police about a new relationship since being informed about the pilot in his area. It may be early days, but police chiefs say it is an encouraging sign of breaking down the secrecy that Sara Payne talks about.

In some respects the scheme simply formalises what already exists.

Police can and do inform communities if there is a risk, such as warning a school about an individual living nearby, or alerting a leisure centre to a suspect who may try to get a job.

The main children's charities are taking a cautious "wait and see" approach to the trials - not least because they fear paedophiles being driven further underground.

Experts also warn that some women who are targeted by offenders are the least likely to seek help from the police - either through naivety or a history of contact with the authorities.

False sense

They also point out that the pilots could create a false sense of security as they may not provide information on potential offenders with no record or known suspicious behaviour to date.

Ministers insist no decision has been taken on a national roll-out - and stress that the pilots need to be seen as part of a package which includes the sex offender register, tough sentences and the multi-agency monitoring arrangements in communities.

But for campaigner Sara Payne the bottom line is this: sex offenders thrive on secrecy - and the more frank debate there is about how to open up this world, the less risk there may be.




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