Why our children are still far from safe

Proposals to review the Sex Offenders Act are more than just a crowd-pleaser following the murder of Sarah Payne. The laws are not as stringent as most people believe.
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It is an anomaly that while Jack Straw's brother's name will appear on the register of sex offenders, it seems that if Myra Hindley is ever released from prison, her name will not. How can this be?

It is an anomaly that while Jack Straw's brother's name will appear on the register of sex offenders, it seems that if Myra Hindley is ever released from prison, her name will not. How can this be?

The Home Secretary's brother, William Straw, was found guilty this month of the indecent assault of a 16-year-old girl. Despite not warranting a custodial sentence, he will nonetheless feature on the register for five years.

Were Myra Hindley set free, it seems that, despite having committed the most heinous crime, she would not be placed on the register because she was found guilty of murder. This is not classed as a sex offence. Although the probation services would no doubt track her movements, the disparity between these two cases is plain.

In the aftermath of the death of Sarah Payne there has been much controversy over the limited right of public access to the names of sex offenders. Thought has also been given to the question of what legal measures can or should be taken to protect children from coming to harm at the hands of sex offenders and other dangerous people.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no distinct list of child-abusers. Paedophiles are just one category of sex offender whose particulars must be kept up to date by the police. The Sex Offenders Act 1997 was among the last major pieces of legislation drafted by the Conservatives.

The Act introduces the notion of "quasi-probation" for a range of sexual offences whose duration exceeds any other post-custodial sanction. Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, explains that the statute was intended to combat "two areas of concern, firstly the degree of reoffending among sex offenders once released, and secondly, on the assumption that the public need protection, it would be helpful if the police and relevant authorities knew how to locate people for a long period of time". She also points out that there was precedent for long-term monitoring where individuals received life sentences.

The Act requires offenders to provide their name and address to the police within 14 days of release or conviction if no custodial sentence is imposed. Any changes also need to be notified. Section 1(4) explains that the details will be retained for five years for less serious offences and up to an indefinite period where a sentence of 30 months or more is imposed. Failure to comply with registration obligations is a criminal offence which can lead to a six-month term of imprisonment.

It is hardly surprising that paedophiles released into the community such as Sidney Cooke are monitored. But the Act covers the gamut of sexual offences, creating an advance warning system for unsavoury or unstable characters.

Dr Tony Butler CBE, chief constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary, and the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) spokesperson in relation to the Sex Offenders Act and child protection generally, comments that "the current rules could be reinforced". He refers to the fact "that various groups are presently outside the scope of the registration requirements. An important category, for example, are UK residents who have been convicted of sex crimes abroad and people who had exited the criminal justice system when the 1997 Act came into force." One solution to combat the risk posed by the latter group would be to have the power to allow the statute to operate on a partially retrospective basis. There is, incidentally, no reason not to extend the list to other potentially dangerous criminals like Hindley.

The register is maintained on the police national computer, accessible to all police officers. There is at present no statutory guidance as to how the information is to be disclosed by the police forces, although there is a Home Office Circular. Mr Butler says that "the key objective is that whatever action is taken must be proportionate to the risk" and he believes "that the appropriateness of disclosure can only be dealt with on a case by case basis".

In practice, information can be passed on to other professional bodies. The police operate protocols with other professionals and agencies such as probation services, social services, housing departments and other agencies which facilitate co-operation and information-sharing. The right to exchange information in this manner is underlined in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Data can also be released in a controlled manner to groups at special risk. This means that police may at their discretion inform local residents of an offender's identity.

The real issue regarding the containment of paedophiles and other sex offenders concerns risk- management. Nationwide, there are panels or committees responsible for assessing hazards posed by those living locally. The panels consist of representatives from the police and probation and social services, and housing and health authorities.

Their task is to grade offenders using a prison-service technique which determines whether individuals represent a low, medium or high risk. This depends on an amalgam of criteria including previous behaviour and current circumstances. Each person's status will be regularly reviewed. Those falling within the high-risk category will be monitored closely by trained sex- offender registration officers (SOROs) who verify addresses and report on domestic circumstances.

As at March 2000, there were 12,000 offenders recorded on the police national computer as having notified the police in England and Wales of their details in accordance with the 1997 Act, representing a compliance rate of 97.5 per cent.

A full review of the 1997 Act is under way and a consultation document is expected by the end of the year. In the meantime, and despite the effectiveness of the notification system, the Government has already identified specific areas where the Act can be tightened up. This is part of a package of measures proposed by the Home Office on 15 September, partly in response to the campaign led by Michael and Sara Payne.

Mr Straw has recommended that Crown Courts should have greater powers to regulate offenders after they are released into the community, with victims to be consulted about their movements. In appropriate cases they could be electronically tagged and subject to indefinite supervision. He has also recommended that initial registration is made within 72 hours and that police be given the power to photograph and fingerprint at that stage.

Another new idea will be to penalise anyone who fails to comply with any of the provisions of the Act, including not informing the authorities of overseas travel plans, by sentencing them for up to five years' imprisonment. One particular hope is that "sexual tourism" will be made more difficult.

These recommendations stop short of a "Sarah's law", modelled on Megan's Law in the United States, whereby the public are given greater access to an offenders' register. The recent witch hunt following the "name and shame" campaign demonstrates what can happen if there is less discriminate disclosure of sensitive information.

Miss Widdecombe endorses the Government proposals but says that she would also like to see registration of those who live here but commit sexual offences abroad, and a greater use of the life sentence.

Convicted sex offenders from other countries are normally refused entry here. A revision to the 1997 Act would therefore protect other countries from dangerous characters. Rule 320(18) of the Immigration Rules provides that entry clearance will usually be withheld from people convicted of serious offences. This was why Mike Tyson's visits to the UK last year were contentious. Mr Straw exercised his discretion in Mr Tyson's favour on two grounds: he did not consider that the fighter posed a risk since he would be under intense scrutiny; and he decided that there were commercial imperatives. Lesser mortals who are unlikely to be accompanied by a media circus can expect to be turned back at Dover.

The changes in the law will be supplemented by the introduction of a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) next year, and new guidelines for police and probation services on risk management of sex offenders and other dangerous criminals. It is hoped that the latter will raise public awareness about the role of the authorities in protecting children.

These measures cannot come to soon, according to the police. The CRB will allow all organisations working with children to obtain criminal records of prospective workers. Anyone working with children can be screened before they are allowed to take up employment. At present, only educational authorities and social services engaging child-minders are able to conduct these types of checks.

Public access to either a sex- offenders' register or generalised criminal records is fraught with danger. There is no certainty that a "Sarah's law" would achieve the understandable objective of its proponents. Enhancing the 1997 Act with particular emphasis upon non-sexual crimes could be more effective.

Penny Lewis is a solicitor at Berrymans Lace Mawer in London