No hiding place for convicted paedophiles

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The Independent Online
Convicted paedophiles could soon have their names and addresses passed to their neighbours, if radical Labour and Liberal Democrat proposals become law.

Opposition parties are pressing Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to accept amendments to make this possible in his Sex Offenders Bill, currently before the House of Commons.

They echo the controversial "Megan's Law" in the United States - passed last year by President Bill Clinton after a seven-year-old girl, Megan Kanka, was murdered by a convicted sex offender who had moved into her street, unknown to her family.

Civil liberties campaigners yesterday expressed alarm at the amendments to the Bill, tabled by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the past few days. And yesterday fears that information reaching the public could spark vigilante groups and violence against known paedophiles were reinforced dramatically by parents in Stirling, who mounted a vigil outside the temporary home of a convicted sex offender.

Under Mr Howard's Bill, there is provision for police to collate a paedophile register which can be used for checking job applications that involve working with children. But there is no mention of the information on the register being passed to members of the public.

In what will be interpreted by the Conservatives as Labour and the Liberal Democrats trying to be seen to be tough on law and order, the Opposition is pushing to insert clauses which go far wider than Mr Howard's draft plans, now at the committee stage in the Commons.

Labour's amendments, tabled by Alun Michael, shadow home affairs minister, call for the establishment of a code of practice to govern "providing information and advice to members of the public and to statutory and voluntary organisations".

Mr Michael said he envisaged a "sophisticated version" of Megan's Law, where there "are some circumstances in which members of the public are told".

He went on: "There are circumstances in which members of the public should be aware of the possible risk due to people coming into their neighbourhood." The passing of the information, he stressed, "should be handled intelligently and sensitively and not gratuitously".

Asked if he was concernedthat the civil liberties of offenders would be impaired, Mr Michael said: "I can't accept it, because the protection of the child is very important. In a sense, this is part of their sentence."

It was not enough, said Mr Michael, for Mr Howard to give the police "an address register so they know where to look for people if they need to find them. We say the register should assist in protecting children and avoid future offences ever happening."

For the Liberal Democrats, Peter Thurnham MP is suggesting a new clause for the Bill enabling a chief constable to decide whether to release information about a convicted paedophile.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, the civil liberties pressure group, said: "We are very concerned about the publication of information from the list because it is very likely to mean sex offenders will be attacked and subjected to the attentions of vigilante groups.

"They are more likely to go underground and not register with the police - and be more dangerous as a result."

A stark illustration of these concerns was provided yesterday by the protest in Stirling. Police said the vigil, involving a handful of protesters, was being carried out on a rota basis outside a hostel housing Alan Christie, who was sentenced to a year's imprisonment in April 1996 after pleading guilty to using lewd and libidinous conduct towards a girl aged four.