New definition of 'paedophile' to close loophole for attackers

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The Independent Online

Ministers are to close the loophole that allows paedophiles such as Sarah Payne?s killer, Roy Whiting, to reoffend.

In a White Paper on sentencing for sexual and violent offenders, due next spring, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is expected to press for a change to the definition of paedophilia – currently covering only offenders who take a consistent sexual interest in children sustained for six months or more.

The document will take account of the risks posed by child sex attackers at the point of their first offence.

The move has been prompted by evidence in Whiting's trial that he was not classed as a paedophile after his first offence against a nine-year-old girl. It was seen as a one-off.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "Protecting children is of the highest priority to the Government. We must do everything we can to ensure that the public is protected from offenders where a risk can be foreseen.

"We have already acted to build on and improve the arrangements for protecting the public from dangerous offenders and we will study the details of this case to ensure we learn from it ways of improving the arrangements still further."

Among the package of proposals being looked at by the Government are "indeterminate" sentences. The length

of these reviewable prison terms could be determined by the assessment of an offender's response to the sex offenders' treatment programme – ultimately meaning life sentences for "untreatable" paedophiles.

The Government is likely to introduce tougher supervision of sex offenders on release from prison, including extensions to the sex offenders' register.

But, despite a major campaign by Michael and Sara Payne, Sarah's parents, the Government is unlikely to bow to pressure to allow public access to the register.

There is little evidence to show that blanket community notification, under the so-called Megan's Law in some US states, affects the rate of re-offending of sex attackers.

But identifying high-risk offenders, particularly ones likely to abuse and attack children, has taken high priority among MPs who want the Government to act fast.

"Clearly we have got to get our definitions right," said Tom Watson, a Labour member of the home affairs select committee. "Putting a six-month time scale on the definition of paedophilia doesn't seem logical. I want to see the law shift the balance of risk in the other direction to give greater safety to children."

Two leading academics, Dr Ethel Quayle and Professor Max Taylor, experts on the behaviour of sex offenders, also back changes in definitions and risk assessment.

Writing in today's Independent on Sunday they say: "Whiting was classified as 'high risk' and not 'paedophile' because his assessors did not consider his primary sexual interest to be children. We need to look again at how these classifications are made."