Police get powers to identify child sex offenders

Police are to have new powers to warn local communities about sex offenders in their area, the Home Office said yesterday. But their scope will be limited and a United States-style "Megan's Law", under which the whereabouts of offenders are widely publicised, is ruled out for fear of vigilante action.

From 1 September, offenders convicted of or cautioned for a range of sexual offenders will have to register their addresses in the National Sex Offenders Register proposed by the previous government and tell the police when they change their name or move home.

Guidelines published yesterday on police use of the information make it clear that ministers are opposed to forces automatically giving local residents the names and addresses of convicted offenders who move into their area on release from prison. Instead, forces will be expected to individually assess the seriousness of the risk posed by offenders, and whether naming them will displace offending somewhere else or drive offenders "underground" where they cannot be monitored by local agencies.

Alun Michael, the Home Office minister, said: "I believe the guidelines strike the right balance between keeping a check on where sex offenders, in particular paedophiles, are living, while at the same time allowing them the chance to mend their ways in the community."

But the guidelines have their limitations and are likely to be followed up with new measures for post-release supervision in the Government's planned Crime and Disorder Bill in the autumn. The Bill is expected to provide for supervision of sex offenders by probation officers for up to 10 years.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "It will take 10 years for the register to be up and running properly. The real issue is the degree of treatment and control."

Home Office research indicates that there are 110,000 men in England and Wales who have committed a serious offence against a child but the register will not be retrospective. Mr Michael estimated that the register would contain 6,000 names by the end of this year and that 3,500 names would be added in each subsequent year. He also said that indeterminate or reviewable sentences could be added to the range of measures for tackling sex offenders.

Under the measures announced yesterday - which will cover convicted rapists as well as child sex offenders - police will be able to pass on details to employers, voluntary organisations and members of the public.

Tony Butler, Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and the crime committee spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the recent High Court ruling which decided that North Wales Police were right to alert the public to two paedophiles who had moved into the area emphasised the need for a "case-by-case" approach.

"Any action must be taken in such a way as to add to protection rather than endangering it," he said. The guidance states that "disclosure to a member of the general public will very much be the exception to the rule". There can be no guarantee, however, that officially disclosed information will not leak to a wider audience.

Potential examples cited by the guidance include disclosure to a local education authority, headteacher, play-group leader or those running youth groups.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said the guidance laid "robust foundations for a national strategy to protect children from paedophiles".

Dealing with another highly controversial area, the guidance suggests that where disclosure would render an offender homeless this might increase the risk to the public.

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