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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Why is Reid looking at new law?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Home Secretary John Reid has surprised many with his sudden decision to consider introducing a US-style Megan's law to help deal with sex offenders.

Jack Straw
Straw rejected a new law in 2000

After all, only six years ago the government rejected just such a law amid claims it was unenforceable and might even put children and the public at greater risk.

But as concerns over paedophiles have increased it appears to be back on the agenda.

Mr Reid is facing allegations of reacting to newspaper headlines - and attempting to divert attention away from other stories about sex offenders being housed near schools.

Dyfed-Powys Chief Constable Terry Grange claimed the Home Office had been "blackmailed" by the News of the World, which has been running a long campaign for a new law.

The suggestion that ministers are reacting to newspaper headlines rather than attempting to formulate sensible policy has been rejected by Labour MP Mr Khalid Mahmood, a parliamentary private secretary to Home Office Minister Tony McNulty.

HAVE YOUR SAY
There is far too much tabloid media influence on the government
Jay R, UK

There is little doubt that there is considerable demand for a Megan's law in the UK, but there are also concerns it might drive offenders underground and lead to outbreaks of mob law.

Mr Reid's predecessor, Jack Straw, rejected just such a law at the height of the public outcry after the murder by a sex offender of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000.

Mr Straw faced a campaign, led by the News of the World, for a "Sarah's Law" to open the sex offenders register to parents. It also "named and shamed" scores of individuals it said were guilty of offences against children.

Public safety

But at that time, and following some examples of vigilante-style demonstrations and attacks on individuals, including innocent people, Mr Straw rejected the idea.

"Controlling such access would be impossible to enforce," he said, adding: "It would not, in our judgement, assist the protection of children or public safety."

Sarah Payne, murdered by a known paedophile.
Campaigners want a UK version of Megan's Law, called Sarah's Law

He was backed by then shadow home secretary, Ann Widdecombe, who said a law was not the way forward.

"I think we saw ample proof of that, following the News of the World campaign when there was an outbreak of vigilantism in some parts of the country".

Yet, less than six years later, we are here again with the same arguments and the same controversy.

And concerned groups are asking what has changed between then and now - apart from more News of the World headlines and the fact that the Home Office is under unprecedented scrutiny.

According to the prime minister's official spokesman, it is right for the home secretary to "take account" of public concern over the issue.

Newspaper headlines

A spokesman also said there was now a "body of experience worth studying" in the US and that there was pressure for such a law to give greater access to the sex offenders register.

"The important thing and the difficult thing in this is to get the balance right between, on the one hand, in protecting the public and giving the public as much information as possible, and on the other, making sure that you don't have vigilantes".

John Reid
Reid is trying to grapple with Home Office crises
But, as the home secretary struggles to reform his much-criticised department and move on from a series of crises which have rocked it over recent months, he is already facing allegations of being prompted to action by newspaper headlines.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "Of course every measure should be taken to protect children from paedophiles, but this should never topple into vigilantism.

"John Reid is proving very adept at capturing headlines, whilst ignoring the difficult decisions that must be taken to provide the most appropriate protection for the public".

And Tory spokesman David Davis said: "You've got to be very careful. Obviously you've got to protect the rights and the safety of children. That's paramount.

"But we must also make sure we don't end up with some lynch mob law."

Whether Mr Reid can now come up with a proposal that strikes that balance, or whether the demands will once again be rejected once the immediate furore has calmed remains to be seen.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
Reid warned against Megan's Law
19 Jun 06 |  UK Politics
The story of Megan's Law
18 Jun 06 |  UK
No 10 denies sentencing 'panic'
15 Jun 06 |  UK Politics

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