Sex Offender Alerts Plan Launched

Parents will be able to ask if someone close to their family is a sex offender under new pilot schemes in England.

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

The year-long projects will be run in Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, Cleveland, and Hampshire.

The move comes after a campaign for a US-style “Megan’s law” – but the scheme falls short of a “right to know”.

Sarah Payne

Calls for a scheme began after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a man already convicted of sex offences.

But some charities have warned the schemes could lead to vigilante attacks, and could drive offenders further underground.

Sarah’s mother, Sara Payne, welcomed the pilots, but she said they were only a “first step” in a continuing battle.

Under the pilots, parents, carers and guardians will be able to ask the police for information about people directly involved in their own children’s lives.

Scenarios could include a single mother who wants to find out about her new boyfriend; parents with concerns about a neighbour who plays with their children; or perhaps even informal sports coaching beyond schools or recognised organisations.

In each of the pilot areas police will be obliged to look into the background of individuals and consider providing information to parents.

This might include confirmation of a previous conviction for sexual offences, domestic violence or an indication that the individual is suspected of being a danger to children.

Court action

However, police may choose not to disclose information, such as convictions, if child protection teams conclude the individual no longer poses a risk to youngsters.

Parents could face court action if they pass on information about an offender to others in their community, a move designed to prevent vigilantism.

Other people unconnected to a child who ask for information about a potential suspect will not be given information, even if their concerns turn out to warrant action.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said the pilots had been launched in the spirit of empowering parents and strengthening child protection.

He said: “We are very proud of the legislation that we have in place for child protection. Managed disclosure of information about an offender already exists to some extent.

“In these trials, if an individual has convictions for sex offences and poses a serious risk, there will be a presumption of disclosure if it is necessary and proportionate to protect children.”

Mr Coaker stressed the pilots would require “careful and thorough consideration” before any decision on a national roll-out.

“This is clearly a very emotive area. There may be issues that arise that mean changes need to be made.”

Vigilante attacks

Diana Sutton, head of policy at the NSPCC, said time would tell whether the schemes kept children safer or merely created a “false sense of security”.

“We strongly urge people to remain alert to the fact that not all child abusers have criminal records because many are not caught and charged with an offence,” she said.

Child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation said it was concerned publicity around the pilot projects could drive sex offenders underground, and called for careful monitoring of their impact.

And crime reduction charity Nacro chief executive Paul Cavadino agreed the risk of attacks could prove to be counter-productive.

“The real test of these pilots will be whether this information can be kept confidential to the parents or whether it spreads to other people, causing a risk of vigilante attacks.”

But Sara Payne welcomed what she called the beginning of the end of “secret-keeping”, saying it had been “a long eight years” of campaigning since her daughter’s murder.

“Secret-keeping is the biggest tool and weapon [that sex offenders] have against our children,” she said.

“This is about taking away the fear that you have as a parent about who they may be playing with. This is about positive parenting: be open about it, get your kids to talk.”

West Mercia Chief Constable Paul West, the senior police spokesman on child protection policy, said: “These pilots empower the parent to take the initiative and register an interest in an individual.

“I don’t think it will open the floodgates – but I do think that there will be people who will come forward with concerns.”