Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Sunday, 24 January 2010

'Sarah's Law' sex offender alert scheme may be expanded

Sarah Payne
Sarah Payne was murdered by a convicted sex offender

Parents across England and Wales could be told about sex offenders who may come into contact with their children.

The government is considering rolling out the scheme currently being trialled in Southampton, Warwickshire, north Cambridgeshire and Stockton-on-Tees.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said early results were "extremely encouraging" and the project had protected children.

"Sarah's Law" was proposed after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender 10 years ago.

Sarah was kidnapped and murdered by Roy Whiting in West Sussex in 2000.

'Encouraging results'

Her mother, Sara, a child protection campaigner, told the News of the World: "In all the long years of campaigning for parents' rights to keep their children safe from predatory paedophiles, this is the most important development to date."

Under the measures, families will be able to ask police if someone with access to a child has convictions or has been previously suspected of abuse.

Harriet Harman: It looks very encouraging from these pilots"

In the first six months of the trial, which started in September 2008, more than 150 parents made inquiries. Of those, 10 were given relevant information.

The home secretary said: "Protecting children and families from sex offenders is one of my top priorities and the UK already has one of the most robust systems of managing sex offenders in the world.

"The development of this scheme is a major step forward in our ability to protect children from sex offenders.

"Early results are extremely encouraging and the pilot has provided crucial protection for children who might otherwise be at risk."

He said results from the year-long pilot were still being evaluated and talks with the police and children's charities would take place before a final decision was made extending the scheme nationally.

'Heart-breaking cases'

Leader of the Commons, Harriet Harman, said there were cases where the system would make a big difference.

She told BBC One's Politics Show: "There have been heart-breaking cases where a woman's got together with a partner and discovers that she's been specifically targeted by him because she's got young children.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling: "We all have huge sympathy with the objectives of Sarah's Law"

"Then she says 'if only I knew what you knew, but there was no way for me to find out'."

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said he supported extending the scheme, as long as checks were made to prevent vigilante action.

He said: "I think it's been right to pilot this whole approach in a number of areas of the country.

"If those pilots have shown that actually it makes a difference, that it doesn't lead to vigilante-style justice, then I'd be very sympathetic and supportive of the idea that it could be extended."

But Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne called for more information about the schemes to be made available.

He said: "The concern is that this will do nothing for the safety of children and could even lead to an increase in sex offenders."

American law

Martin Narey, chief executive of children's charity Barnardo's, said he was encouraged by how the pilots went.

He said: "I was very cautious about this experiment, and we at Barnardo's were worried about the possibility this scheme might drive sex offenders underground, away from police and probation supervision, and put children in danger.

"That doesn't appear to have happened in these four pilots."

Michele Elliott, founder of the Kidscape charity, welcomed the move.

"We are absolutely delighted, we have been campaigning for this, we think it's good for children and it's about time," she said.

"It's interesting that they have chosen to do this now with an election around the corner, it's a popular thing, but whatever the motivation of the politicians it's important that parents will now be able to get access to this information."

The so-called Megan's Law in the US, which allows the publication of names, addresses and pictures of paedophiles in some states, prompted calls for an equivalent "Sarah's Law" in the UK.

Sara Payne, who is the government's Victims Tsar, has been undergoing treatment after complications following brain surgery but is said to have responded well.

Below is a selection of some of your comments about this story:

e-mail sent in by reader

This is an excellent scheme to protect children. It is extremely important for parents to know background of people who are around their children. It is also very important that when it's known that there is someone of shady character in the area, that vigilante groups don't force the person away and off the police/probation services radar.
Andrew, Llandrindod Wells

e-mail sent in by reader

This is a fantastic idea, as long as the information given out is absolutely true. However I do think there should be more definition to "suspected" sex offenders, for example; should wrongly accused sex offenders brought to the attention of the public?
Chris Jackson, Leeds

e-mail sent in by reader

I would be interested to see HOW this scheme has been "extremely effective".

Laws such as this can be ineffective. They can target all offenders including those unlikely to recommit rather than dealing with those most likely to recommit. If government resources given to the project are not sufficient resources (the government do not have a good track record on this) them some will slip through, particularly the most determined to do so.

This can make the situation more dangerous but leave parents feeling safer and so less likely to take correct precautions.

So how has this scheme proved "extremely effective" then?
Matt, Leeds

e-mail sent in by reader

Anything that could prevent one child having to endure what that poor girl went through should be seriously considered. If it is working in the US why shouldn't it be here too? Children's safety should be top priority without question.
Amanda, Derby

e-mail sent in by reader

This is all very well in theory and might (perhaps) prevent some crimes. There are however two disadvantages. First is that it may result in offenders not being able to find anywhere to live after sentence. Secondly it may result in people being given what the police call "soft information" about others including completely unproven and perhaps malicious allegations. This cannot be tolerated.
Dudley Dean, Maresfield, East Sussex

e-mail sent in by reader

Over the years, I have met a number of people who have had false accusations of child abuse made against them by malicious neighbours, drug addicts, or others with a grudge.

Clearly, in the interest of child welfare, the authorities had to investigate the allegations.

Despite the fact that there was no substance to the claims, presumably they will be on record as having been suspected?

If the government is proposing releasing details of who is suspected of crime, rather of known offenders, they have clearly and absolutely thrown away "innocent until proved guilty" and this will have a serious effect on many innocent lives.
David, Doncaster

e-mail sent in by reader

What utter rubbish! Most abuse is carried out by people known to the victim and so few people are on any list held by the police. It is naive and stupid to think that this is anything other than a government and police force trying to justify themselves.

If people trust this system then they may be fooled into thinking that everything is OK because the police say so. Anyone that puts blind faith in government or police deserves the society they get.

Abuse is not something you can legislate against.
Vince, Farnham

e-mail sent in by reader

As a retired police officer I know that someone who has been put on the sex offenders register does not mean they are a danger to children. Take a case where a boy just over 16 and his girlfriend is just under and they have sex - he could be put on the register. Set that against a 50 year old man befriending a 12 year old. There's no comparison.

Any giving out of information should either give details of the offence or have a danger rating between 1 to 10, more detail could be given perhaps to people like myself has having signed the official secrets act and also neighbourhood watch co-ordinator.
Gerry, London

e-mail sent in by reader

I definitely believe that this is the correct way to go. If a sexual predator who could endanger the life of your child, has even a slight chance of coming into contact with your children, then yes, give us the chance to get them out of that organisation to protect them. This disease they have is incurable and any help in protecting our siblings should be welcomed.
Paul Shaw, Paisley

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