“Children may be at risk of harm from sexual predators as very few police forces are making full use of Sarah’s Law” says the NSPCC in report released today.
Since it became possible in 2011 for adult custodians, who believe a child in their care is at risk, to find out if a named individual poses a risk from the police, only 1 in 6 requests have been granted, which means most applications are unsuccessful.
The police cite the risk of vigilantism to be the main reason for refusing the requests.
Between 2011 and 2014, 5357 applications were made to 33 police forces but only 877 applications resulted in disclosures being made. Five other forces said they had received 908 applications, but did not provide information about disclosure numbers.
The way in which different force areas dealt with applications for information varied very widely. For example
Sussex Police, which investigated Sarah Payne’s murder, made disclosures in 14 out of 193 applications (7 per cent), according to the charity.
By contrast, Cleveland police made disclosures in response to 131 out of a total of 147 requests – a rate of 89 per cent.
Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive said, “We are both disturbed and surprised by this wide discrepancy of figures across the country, revealing that there is a postcode lottery when it comes to how forces deal with Sarah’s law.
What is Sarah’s Law
The sex offender disclosure scheme in England and Wales (also known as “Sarah’s Law” allows anyone to formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. The Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child’s best interests.
Why was the scheme developed?
In 2000 Sarah Payne, an 8 year old girl, was abducted and murdered by Roy Whiting who had previously been convicted of abducting and indecently assaulting a young girl.
Following Sarah’s death, the News of the World, supported by Sarah’s Parents, launched a campaign calling for the introduction of “Sarah’s Law”, a UK version of what is known as “Megan’s Law” in the United States.
Since 1996, in the USA, legislation requires the police to make available to the public, information about local sex offenders. As part of the campaign, photographs and general locations of a number of alleged child sex offenders were published in the newspaper, which led to a spate of vigilante attacks, in some cases on the wrong people. Different versions apply in different states.
Lobbying in the early millenium led to resistance from the UK Government to any change in the law. In 2006, the Home Office investigated its viability and commissioned a review. Only some of the recommendations made resulted in a change to the law namely:-
- There should be a legal duty on authorities to consider the disclosure of information about convicted sex offenders if they consider that the offender presents a risk of serious harm to a member of the public’s childern – Section 140 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008
- A process should be piloted whereby members of the public can register their child protection interest in a named individual, and if this person has convictions for child sex offences and is considered a risk, this information will be disclosed to the relevant member of the public;
Following the pilot, the Home Office recommended in 2010 that schemes be rolled out in all police forces.
What do I think?
- Change the law so that it is the same as the USA, whereby the police simply have to publish the information rather than respond to a specific request. In the State of Florida, for instance, there is a publicly available online database showing details of sex offenders, their photograph, and whereabouts.
The reason this type of law was not adopted in the UK is because, in the USA, there had been examples of the publication of the details of sex offenders leading to vigilante type revenge attacks, and the registered sex offenders going underground.
- Take the job of deciding whether or not to disclose, and assess “the child’s best interests” from the police by adopting the USA model, and just leave the law as a simple duty. In this way the information will simply be publicly available.
- Appoint a lead Chief Constable and generic police team to form a national policy on the way in which Sarah’s Law should be implemented.
- Arrange nationwide round table meetings to which different regional forces would be invited at which discussions about good policy would take place resulting in feed back which could be fed to the generic police team.
- At the end of the consultation publish not only police national guidelines but also actual case examples to help iron out the differences in approach between different force areas outlined above.
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