No 10 on back foot as police chief savages 'knee-jerk' approach to law and order

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The Independent Online

Downing Street has angrily denied accusations from a senior police officer that the Government is rushing into "on the hoof" law and order policies dictated by a "tabloid" agenda.

It hit back at the claim by Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed and Powys, that the Home Office was pandering to the media across a range of policy areas.

Following a long-running campaign by the News of the World for paedophiles' names and addresses to be made public, John Reid, the Home Secretary, announced he was considering the idea.

Backing Mr Grange, the Labour MP Martin Salter said: "There is a real danger in playing to the tabloids on this issue." Mr Salter, a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told Radio 4's The World at One: "Does the News of the World really want to end up with a situation where we are driving paedophiles and violent sex offenders underground, putting more children at risk as the result of an ill-thought-out tabloid campaign?

"And does the Home Secretary really want make decisions based on cold, hard evidence, or merely on newspaper headlines?"

The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted the Government was responding to genuine public concern over such issues as the whereabouts of offenders. He dismissed suggestions that the Government was about to adopt a British version of "Megan's law", which gives American parents access to information about paedophiles who may be living in their neighbourhood. "If we had said we are going to introduce Megan's Law today, that would have been policy-making on the hoof." He added: "We do have to recognise that there is a balance to be struck between what in many local communities up and down the country is a genuine, ongoing concern about this issue and the need to give the public information that reassures them, at the same time as avoiding vigilantism."

Asked why the Megan's law move was announced in the News of the World, he said: "I'm not aware of the law which says it's wrong to reply to a media organisation's questions."

A serving judge took a swipe yesterday at Mr Reid as he warned that politicians were undermining public faith in the judiciary by criticising supposedly "soft" sentences. Judge Bathurst Norman took the unusual step of speaking out publicly to warn that Britain risks falling into anarchy or becoming a police state if confidence in the judiciary is lost.

Last week Mr Reid criticised a judge's decision to credit Craig Sweeney, a convicted paedophile, for his early guilty plea by halving to six years the minimum period before he can apply for parole. Judge Bathurst Norman said the comments were an "intemperate attack on those who can't properly defend themselves". "I thought he had perhaps not fully understood the way that the judge had sentenced, had not understood the guidelines or the fact that this was a life sentence," the judge told Radio 4's Today programme.

Schools were also told yesterday that they must carry out fresh criminal record checks on thousands of their teachers and support staff in an effort to tighten vetting procedures to stop paedophiles working with children.

The move was ordered by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, in the wake of a report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, which revealed hardly any schools had a record of criminal record checks made on their staff. Headteachers' leaders warned it could cause administrative chaos by swamping the Criminal Records Bureau with requests - which would take months to answer.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school headteachers, said he had "grave concerns" over the pace with which the checks were expected to be implemented. "There is a lot of bureaucracy here and it costs £53 a time," he added. "The public will have to be patient."

Mr Johnson told MPs he was introducing new regulations to compel every school to keep a record of every check it had made.

He demanded that all schools should carry out fresh checks on staff for which they did not have a record of earlier checks. As Ofsted estimated that 95 per cent of all schools kept no records, it would mean that nearly all staff employed in a new job since 2002, when the CRB was set up, would have to be rechecked.

Mr Johnson also ordered councils to check all overseas recruits after some complained that existing police checks were "not robust". New legislation will also make it a criminal offence for teacher supply agencies to fail to vet staff.

"Schools are suffering from guidance overload," Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, warned. "The lesson from this report is that no matter how tight regulations might seem, if they are not communicated clearly and not properly acted upon they are not worth the reams of paper they are written on."