Police doubt 'Sarah's Law' will cause vigilante attacks

Sarah Payne Sarah Payne was kidnapped and murdered by convicted sex offender Roy Whiting

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Police have played down fears that allowing parents to check if someone with access to their children is a sex offender may cause vigilante attacks.

The scheme known as "Sarah's Law" was proposed after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne 10 years ago.

A Home Office pilot is being extended to eight more forces in England.

Chief Constable Paul West of the Association of Chief Police Officers said it was "realistic" to think people would keep information to themselves.

The scheme was piloted in four areas in England from September 2008 and will be expanded to the whole of England and Wales by spring.

Sarah was kidnapped and murdered by a convicted sex offender, Roy Whiting, in West Sussex in 2000.

'Disclose appropriately'

Charities have warned the scheme could backfire by driving paedophiles underground.

Diana Sutton, of the NSPCC, said it was good that the pilot schemes had helped protect some children, but urged the government to "tread cautiously" as it expanded the initiative.

"We remain concerned about the risk of vigilante action and sex offenders going underground. All new local schemes need close management and proper resourcing to avoid this," she said.

But Chief Constable West said people would not need to share the information as police would inform any affected party.

"If there is information that says someone with previous offences for child sex offending is living in a particular house next door, and became known to a person, if there were other children to whom they have access, clearly that would come out in the course of the investigation and we would disclose that appropriately to anyone who has children who are at risk," he said.

"The point is, we don't go for widespread public disclosure to anybody and everybody because that's just the sort of thing that leads to the vigilantism which we've seen in the past."

And Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said there were always risks.

"People say people will go underground - frankly, people go underground anyway.

"With all the other parts of the police service working also in this area, I do think we have got a real hope of keeping people safer and keeping young people safer, which is very important."

'Sarah would be proud'

Home Secretary Theresa May said the expansion of the scheme was an "important step forward for child protection" which would also help police manage known sex offenders more effectively.

"Being able to make these checks reassures parents and the community and, more importantly, keeps children safer," she said.

The original trial of the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme took place in Cambridgeshire, Cleveland, Hampshire and Warwickshire.

The Home Office said more than 60 children had been protected from abuse during the pilot scheme.

Diana Sutton, NSPCC: "we are concerned that with national rollout, the potential for vigilante action is much, much greater"

Nearly 600 inquiries to the four forces involved in the pilot led to 315 applications for information and 21 disclosures about registered child sex offenders.

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

The scheme is now being rolled out to eight other force areas - West Mercia, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Thames Valley, West Midlands, Essex and Suffolk.

A further expansion is planned for the autumn, with Northamptonshire, Staffordshire, Sussex, Leicestershire, Wiltshire, Cheshire, Durham, Northumbria, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Surrey and Gloucestershire joining the scheme.

It will be rolled out to other forces by spring next year.

A similar extension of a pilot scheme was also proposed for Scotland earlier this year. Northern Ireland is yet to decide whether to implement a scheme.

Sarah Payne's mother, Sara, was made the government's Victims' Champion after her campaign to bring in the measures.

She wrote in the News of the World newspaper that "despite this positive step, I still believe there's a need for fuller disclosure".

But she said children had been made safer, adding: "Sarah would be so proud, I'm only sorry it took her death for this vital reform to become a reality."

One father living in a pilot area told the BBC he faced a dilemma when he discovered the background of a man who worked at an outdoor facility his daughter used.

"I made a very swift decision that my daughter was never going back to that facility again, and had to decide, 'should I tell other parents or keep it to myself?'

"I have, to this day, kept quiet on it really and I'm still not sure whether I should alert them, but it's a very difficult situation to be in," he said.

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.

Your comments:

It should be more like 'Megan's Law' in the USA. I was living in New Jersey when Megan Kanka was raped and killed by a neighbour. I have seen how the law has played out over there. Most states now have websites with names, addresses and pictures of convicted sex-offenders. This has not led to vigilante justice at all, in fact I can't think of one vigilante incident in the whole of the USA. Instead it has made everyone feel safer.

David, London

Only paedophiles or potential ones should worry about the introduction of Sarah's Law. Any law that deters these people is to be welcomed. If they are concerned about potential reprisals from vigilanties, then stay on the right side of the law and don't go round kidnapping, raping and murdering children. People who commit evil crimes should not expect all their human rights to be still in place in all their entirety. If you commit crime so must you do the time and suffer the consequences that are coming your way.

Matt, London

I am a Brit now living in the USA. Everyone here has access to see where sex offenders live in your area. The local police department publish an updated list every day. It gives great piece of mind for families living with children. Also I have never heard of vigilantes going after offenders here. Every citizen shoul d have the right to know who their neighbour is.

Todd, Florida, USA

My father is a convicted child abuser who was jailed for abusing my daughter who, eventually, was brave enough to tell us. He has served his sentence and now walks freely in the village we used to live in. We were forced to move away though, it was vital for my child's mental health but was at a great loss to us financially and socially. He has a SOPO order on him and was deemed, by the judge, to pose a serious risk. Yet he receives only one vist a month and was able to recently get married and have a reception with children present. My child id now letting out years of fear and faces long term help for her low self esteem and many other issues caused by the abuse by a man we loved and trusted.The house next to him is for sale, it's a five-bedroomed property. I feel so very sorry for the family who buy it yet the police cannot disclose who or what he is. Those poor people will move in only to be told by other local residents who they now live next to. Abusers should not have human rights. They take away rights and dignity from innocent children.

Anonymous, Suffolk

All that will happen is that the rise in vigilanties stalking the streets ready to take action against these people will increase. What about people who look like the convicted paedophiles? The totally innocent one who ends up being approached by a snorting group of so-called heroes and ends up badly beaten or killed? Personally, I would spend the money on something more sensible that protects everyone like more police to catch these sick individuals and prevent people from taking the law into their own hands.

Kenny, Forfar

If you rob a bank, your name is all over the papers. The same thing happens if if you fail to pay your council tax, so why should these people enjoy anonymity? The very fact that the local community will know who they are will act as a deterrent and if that saves one child pain, then isn't it worth it?

Paul, Nottingham

Is this a free hand for people to take the law into their own hands and begin a man hunt? What has happened to our civil rights?

Annie, Hitchin

It doesn't go far enough. We would also like to see photos of some of these people, so we know who to look out for. If rehabilitation does not work with these people, why should we not be offering chemical or real castration as well? Longer prison sentences in a real jail so they know that they have committed a real crime. Never mind the human rights laws, the child or person at risk should come first.

Sharron, Dagenham

A person who has a history of sex offending against children, and who has become known to the police and courts, is very unlikely to be working with children. A bit of logic needs to come into play here. I for one don't think it's a good idea making available this information to the public, the information obtained could be misused and contribute to driving sex offenders underground.

David, Essex

I don't see why such a scheme which actually encourages vigilante attacks and drives offenders underground, actually helps anyone except costing tax payers huge amounts of money which would be better spent elsewhere. Most attacks on children are committed by close family members. Sarah's Law is only there as reassurance against a small handful of crimes committed by strangers.

Simon, Liverpool

This law will lead to more harm than good. While I am in favour of transparency and accountability for government and for the police, I don't believe this will actually help protect a single child. Instead it will lead to vigilantism and harm people wrongly accused or suspected. How many adult's deaths due to misinformation will it take before this sick law is repealed?

Loz, Manchester

Whilst the scheme is being rolled out piece-meal, could parents, in areas where the scheme has not been adopted, expect an "influx" of paedophiles escaping detection? If the scheme has proved successful then it should be rolled out nationwide so that there is nowhere for these individuals to hide.Annie in Hitchin:

Celia, Carnforth

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