Will ‘Sarah’s Law’ make kids safer?

WELSH police have welcomed the introduction of new powers which will allow parents to check whether people coming into contact with their children have a history as sex offenders.

The so-called “Sarah’s Law” — named after 8-year-old Sarah Payne, who was killed by convicted sex offender Roy Whiting — is due to be introduced into Wales next spring, following a successful trial in England.

The Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme will give parents the right to ask the police about partners or other people who have regular unsupervised contact with their kids.

The information is only given to the person directly affected, and is not intended to be made widely available. Concerns have been raised that the introduction of the scheme could lead to sex offenders “going underground”, making it harder for the authorities to manage and supervise them.

However, Detective Superintendent David Bishop, from South Wales Police’s public protection unit, said the move would help to safeguard children.

He said: “We welcome the introduction of the national Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, which will undoubtedly help us to protect children in our communities.

“This scheme will be rolled out across Wales from April 2011, allowing any concerned parents, carers or guardians to take active steps to protect their children if they feel they may be at risk.

“Every referral under the scheme will be fully assessed, and when police, or partners’, information leads to raised concerns about the safety of a child, a disclosure will be made to the person who is best placed to protect and care for them.”

The introduction of the scheme follows an independent evaluation of a £600,000 pilot scheme in four police force areas — Cambridgeshire, Cleveland, Hampshire and Warwickshire — which has been running since 2008.

The pilot saw 315 formal applications from parents and carers that resulted in the disclosure of the background of 21 convicted child sex offenders.

A further 43 cases led to other safeguarding actions, including referrals to children’s social care, and 11 general disclosures were made regarding protection issues linked to violent offending.

The Home Office says more than 60 children were protected from abuse as a result.

However, fears have been raised that disclosing the names of offenders — who currently have to register with police and notify them of their addresses — could encourage them to hide their whereabouts and “disappear” from the supervision system.

The prospect of the addresses of sex offenders being released and then made public have also sparked concerns about the dangers of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands.

Diana Sutton, from children’s charity NSPCC, urged the Government to “tread cautiously” with the widespread use of disclosure.

She said: “We remain concerned about the risk of vigilante action, and of sex offenders going underground.

“All new local schemes need close management and proper resourcing to avoid this.”

This week the scheme was extended to eight more force areas — West Mercia, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Thames Valley, West Midlands, Essex and Suffolk.

However the law will not apply to the four Welsh forces until next year.

Sarah Payne’s mother, Sara, was crowned the Government’s “Victims’ Champion” after her decade-long campaign to bring the law — based on Megan’s Law in the US, which allows the publication of names, addresses and pictures of paedophiles in some states — to the UK.

She said though the victory was tinged with sadness, she was pleased the scheme was finally being introduced in Britain

“But to be honest, if the scheme saves one life then the past 10 years have been worth it,” she said.