Access to abusers list `must be wider'

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The Independent Online
CONFIDENTIAL local registers of paedophiles and suspected child abusers must be made available to voluntary organisations and employers of people working with children, says a report by government advisers published today.

The report, by officials in the home, health and social services departments, backs the Government's aim of a "one-stop shop" for checks on adults who should not be left in charge of children. The move comes amid heightened public concern after two schoolgirls were abducted on their way to school in Sussex last week.

Civil liberties campaigners expressed concern last night that a series of ad hoc measures was being introduced that went further than they thought necessary to protect children.

But the Government is determined to be seen to respond to public fears on child safety. Today Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will introduce a Bill making it a criminal offence for those responsible for young people under 18 to have sexual relations with them.

Later this week Tessa Jowell, the Health minister responsible for public safety, is to unveil plans to encourage safe routes to schools with extra cash available for parents to set up walking rotas. A key measure will bring together the Home Office's criminal records, the Department for Education's "List 99" of those deemed unsuitable for teaching and the Department of Health's "consultancy index" of suspect health workers. Setting up a Criminal Records Bureau, based on Merseyside and due be fully functional by 2001, will make it easier for those working with children to carry out police checks on potential employees. Today's report is understood to recommend that the bureau be extended to include information currently held by health and social services. Everyone from children's homes to Guide leaders should have access, the report argues. The bureau would provide checks, including in some cases convictions considered "spent" under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, for a fee.

John Wadham, of the civil liberties group Liberty, said he was concerned that measures were being introduced ad hoc that would fail to protect children while tarnishing innocent people. "We already know of cases of people who have been acquitted of offences and who have had suspicions following them around, making it impossible for them to get jobs."

Teaching organisations also expressed concerns about the creation of the criminal offence of "abuse of trust", suggested to reassure those who feared that lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16 would leave young boys vulnerable to exploitation by older men.

Headteachers said the new offence would mean that a moment's indiscretion by a young teacher with a 17-year-old girl pupil could land him in jail.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said in a letter to MPs that the creation of the offence was neither necessary nor desirable for those who work in schools and colleges.

Leading article, Review, page 3