Sex offender register under critical gaze

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The Independent Online
The planned national register of convicted sex offenders and moves to prosecute so-called sex tourists were finally introduced by the Government yesterday in a parliamentary Bill. But details of how the register will work in practice are still far from settled, and penal experts warned that it could have little impact on the actions of paedophiles.

The promised Bill, which had been left out of the Government's programme until the Labour leader, Tony Blair, challenged John Major to include it, says that those convicted or cautioned in respect of specified sex offences (including rape and buggery) who fail to register their address and any change of name or address with the police would be guilty of an offence. The maximum penalty would be a fine of pounds 1,000 and/or up to a month's imprisonment.

Registration would last for a minimum of five years for offenders receiving non-custodial sentences and for life in cases of custodial sentences lasting 30 months and more. An extension of the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts aims to deter paedophiles travelling to countries such as Thailand and the Philippines for child sex.

A consultation paper on the operation of the register had been expected with yesterday's Bill, but the Home Office minister David Maclean made it clear yesterday that concerns about how it should be used had not been resolved and that consultation would continue.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I see enormous difficulties if one was to take the information that the police have on computer and try to publish that more widely in the community. There is a danger of vigilantes."

The potential for vigilante reaction was raised in the summer when the Bournemouth Evening Echo launched a "Protect our Children" campaign and pledged to publish the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles in Dorset. There was also talk of a "lynching" in Hackney, east London, if one convicted paedophile was allowed to return to the area on release from prison.

The Bill received overall support from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which will advise the Home Office on implementation, and Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, pledged Labour's co-operation.

But Mary Honeyball, general secretary of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said: "To make a register the centre-piece of a policy to protect children could be a mistake. Only a fraction of active sex offenders are caught and convicted. We have never objected to a register, but only as a part of a system that balances vigilance over children with the systematic monitoring and supervision of known offenders."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said there was a danger that the public would be lured into a false sense of security. "There is a grave risk that abusers will go to ground," he said.

David Colvin, Scottish secretary of the British Association of Social Workers and secretary of Action on Child Exploitation, emphasised the tiny number of abusers who were prosecuted and warned of the need for a system "under which the person could challenge, using the legal test of balance of probabilities, what is on the register". Including suspects on the register could be one way of persuading them to stop denying their problem and seek treatment on a programme, he said.