There has been a fair bit of coverage in the news over the weekend of the plan to extend the so-called Sarah’s Law from its four pilot areas around the UK to a national scheme. For a few reasons, I think that this is a bad idea that won’t achieve very much, and that it is being implement purely because it is popular and grabs headlines in the run-up to a general election.
For those of you who don’t know, the Sarah’s Law scheme allows parents to ask local police forces if people who have contact with their children have convictions for sex crimes or have been previously suspected of abuse. The police then check the Sex Offenders Register and any other relevant databases, and if there is a cause for concern they will share a certain amount of information with the applicant. The parent is supposed to be legally bound to keep that information confidential and not tell any other parents or people in the local area. It is named Sarah’s Law after the abduction and murder of a girl called Sarah Payne by a convicted paedophile in 2000, and is similar to but not the same as Megan’s Law in the US. Megan’s Law is more wide-reaching, as it allows people to find out if any sex offenders live in their local area, without having to make an enquiry about a specific individual. The Sarah’s Law campaigners wanted the same thing in the UK, but instead this compromise scheme was introduced.
I think the whole scheme is a bad idea with potentially dangerous consequences. Firstly, I would be extremely concerned about the possibility of vigilante reprisals against people who have details relating to them released under this scheme. I know that in the pilot areas they haven’t found this to be a problem, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. The public, and particularly parents, are not at all rational when it comes to any kind of sex offender, and there have already been instances in the past of people being attacked, murdered or hounded from their homes because of previous allegations – whether those allegations were actually proven or not. For this reason, I think the monitoring of sex offenders is and should remain the job of the police and the probation service. Despite what some campaigners might say, parents are NOT appropriate people to do so.
Secondly, I think that the Sex Offender Register is at times a highly imperfect system. People who pose no threat to children, or in fact no threat to anyone at all, can sometimes end up on the Sex Offenders Register for life. Take a 16 year-old boy who has sex with his 15 year-old girlfriend: technically, that is statutory rape, and could lead to him being recorded on the register for sex with a minor. Does that make him a danger to children? Most likely not. But if ‘previous sex with a child’ is shared with a member of the public, with no qualifying information, that person will then be labelled as a dangerous paedophile, and a hysterical reaction ensues. I am unsure quite what level of detail is shared with parents under this scheme, but I would feel that this is a significant area of concern.
The scheme also includes people who have been suspected of or investigated for abuse, which I think is even worse. Of course that information may sometimes be critical to crime prevention, but it could also be due to a malicious or mistaken allegation that was investigated and then dismissed. How is it fair that that should be shared with local people should they ask about it? Qualified individuals should have access to that information, not members of the public.
Further to that, the scheme of course offers no protection at all from people who have never been investigated for or charged with a sex offence. Yes I suppose it may offer some limited protection from those who have previous convictions, but as I understand it, people who are a danger to children are barred from working with them anyway, so what does this scheme add?
Fear of paedophile attack has been whipped up to ridiculous extremes in this country, even though in reality I would expect the risk remains very low and has not increased particularly over the years. People may say “yes but any risk is too great”, or “we have to do EVERYTHING we can to protect our children”, or “it only has to happen once though doesn’t it?”, and yes those statements are true. But you could equally apply those statements to road traffic accidents, which do far more harm to children each year, and then say that we should ban all cars or not allow children to cross the road until they are 18.
On top of that, as far as I am aware most cases of abuse still occur within families and extended families, and are not due to strangers snatching a child in the streets. Would this scheme help with that? Not really. A mother can check if her new boyfriend poses any danger to her children, the scheme’s organisers say. Well yes, I suppose so, but how many of them will? And what about fathers, uncles, cousins and trusted neighbours whom you’ve known for years? Any of these people could, and do, turn out to be child abusers, but you wouldn’t get checks run on everyone, and even if you did they probably wouldn’t have any previous convictions anyway.
This legislation is pointless, and is just a convenient way for a government to look tough on crime and to be seen to be ‘doing something’. I feel its potential efficacy is going to be substantially less than should be required to outweigh its risks. It is very hard, however, for someone to publicly oppose the scheme, particularly politicians – do so, and you risk be called anything from ‘soft on crime’ to ‘pro-child abuse’. Calling it Sarah’s Law is a deliberate contrivance to make it even harder to criticise, as they can then slap Sarah Payne’s picture all over everything and use her murder to guilt-trip you into backing the proposal without properly considering it.
I would point out however, that this scheme would not have saved Sarah Payne’s life. She wasn’t killed by someone her mother could have applied for information about. He didn’t have previous or regular contact with her. He snatched her from the streets – an abominable but extremely rare crime. The even more dangerous Megan’s Law could potentially have avoided it, but Sarah’s Law would not. The whole idea should be binned.