Megan's law doesn't work there and won't work here

'If Ann Widdecombe refusesto jump on the bandwagon, then there must really be something wrong with it'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sarah's law? Megan's Law? Or is it Rebekah Wade's Law? Never mind the law of the land or the rule of law, the News of the World has spoken. So that's it then? Easy. Problem solved. Lynch-mob rule can be suspended because a tabloid has decreed that: "You spoke - now they are all listening."

Sarah's law? Megan's Law? Or is it Rebekah Wade's Law? Never mind the law of the land or the rule of law, the News of the World has spoken. So that's it then? Easy. Problem solved. Lynch-mob rule can be suspended because a tabloid has decreed that: "You spoke - now they are all listening."

Just what is it about any tragedy that happens in our modern grief culture that requires the victims - for whom I have huge sympathy - to seek solace in the cynical publicity generated by newspaper "campaigns"? I feel as sorry and as sick as anyone for the Paynes, but am I the only one who wishes, for their sake, that this poor family would seek solace in the counsel of close friends, a decent pastor or Sarah's grandparents and take a break from this wretched tabloid frenzy?

Of course, people must grieve in the way that suits their emotions best, and certainly it is understandable that the Paynes should wish to ensure that the public sympathy is channelled into a national campaign to prevent another Sarah from suffering the same dreadful fate. However, we have seen this scene before.

Remember Leah Betts a few years ago? The terrible death of a teenager who had been supplied with the drug ecstasy led to a public family grief, played out daily on our television screens with calls for tighter drug controls. Pretty soon the campaigners, on behalf of the Betts, lost interest and the family now have a much lower profile.

In any case, the idea that either the Betts family or the Payne family, for example, are the ones best qualified to lead the national debate on the dangers of either drug abuse or paedophilia fills me with dread. Yes, no-one can deny that they have suffered, but I cannot help feeling that it is all part of the cover for that awful guilt that must secretly lurk at the back of any parent's mind. "If only we hadn't let them go out on their own. If only... ."

The blunt and unpalatable truth is that - and I refer here to society as a whole rather than individual cases - we take less care of our children today than we did 40 years ago.

It cannot be that there are so many more paedophiles today than in the past. It is just that we now know the extent of their evil existence whereas previously we were less aware of the problem. But not knowing the extent of the problem meant that parents always had a much greater instinct for fearing the worst.

I grew up just three miles from the Sarah Payne murder site and so, like my parents who still live in Arundel, Sussex, have been following this case, in all its brutality, with some familiarity of the area. It is reminding me of the prisoner-like existence that my sister and I lived when we were growing up there. I was never allowed out of my parent's sight to play on my own. Yet today, we see too many children out unsupervised, truanting, usually endangering themselves with older gangs, up to mischief at hours of the day when all hell would have broken loose if I was unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, the vigilante mobs have only been stilled by Ms Wade because of the prospect that the authorities will consider a copycat of Megan's Law, which was passed in America after seven-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey was murdered. Megan's parents were unaware that their neighbour was a twice-convicted sex offender until he was charged with the rape and murder of Megan. All 50 states were required to meet federal standards. New York, for example, passed "The Sex Offender Registration Act of 1996", more commonly known as Megan's Law.

New York's version, which is sometimes cited as a model for Britain, establishes registration and notification and classifies convicted sex offenders in a three-tier system according to risk.

Prior to an offender's release, a "level of notification" recommendation is made to the sentencing court; level one (low risk), level two (moderate risk), or level three (high risk). The risk level determines the amount of information law that enforcement bodies are authorised to release to the public through various types of "community notification". In addition, each police department is required to have a publicly accessible book, which can be viewed on written request but only provides detailed information and photos of the highest-risk sex offenders.

The American law sounds sensible - but the big question is, has it made a difference? Sadly, not a jot, it would seem. Compliance and co-operation with the authorities has actually fallen to 80 per cent as the offenders have simply gone underground. This compares with a compliance of 97 per cent for the paedophile register in Britain.

The evidence shows that Megan's Law has failed to prevent offenders repeating their crimes and it has been described as "ineffective" by criminal lawyers in the US. Only vigilante attacks, usually on the wrong people, have been the beneficiaries.

So, here we go again. Football Supporters Act, Dangerous Dogs Act, another Football Hooligans Bill this summer and now the clamour for "Sarah's Law". The remarkable silence of Ann Widdecombe and William Hague on this issue should tell us all we need to know. If even they are refusing to jump on Ms Wade's bandwagon then there really must be something wrong with it. Michael Howard, always willing to consider a populist "tough on crime" measure, warned at the weekend that such a law would result in non-compliance and vigilante attacks. He rejected such a plan when he was Home Secretary. The hapless Paul Boateng at first appeared to embrace the idea but is clearly, thankfully, having second thoughts.

Newspaper tear-off slip petitions are not the best way to make law. No doubt Ms Wade will enjoy "naming and shaming" MPs who do not sign up to her campaign. Perhaps she will set the mob on them - as well as on commentators like me.

Far too little has been made of one powerful fact: that child molesters and sex offenders are very often known to the child. Often they are close members of the family. The Megan's Law Campaign in America notes that "most childhood sex abuse, up to 90 per cent, occurs with someone a child has an established, trusting relationship with, whether known or not by the parent. Approximately 30 per cent of that 90 per cent are relatives."

Most children who will die during the next few weeks will do so because they are unsupervised. The majority will die in road accidents. The pictures in this weekend's newspapers of two boys with their ears pressed to a railway line, listening to see if they could hear the train coming, indicates that a lack of parental supervision is as likely as children's stupidity to be the cause of deaths as anything.

Short of suspending the rule of law and permitting castration on the basis of mere suspicion, or indefinite sentences, we will never eradicate the evils of human nature consistent with a free society based on justice and the rule of law. Parental control, such as I knew as an eight-year-old, is the only realistic solution.