Leading article: Another foolish and illiberal law

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The Independent Online

It appears that a version of "Megan's Law" could be foisted on Britain after all. It has emerged that three areas of the country are to stage a pilot scheme in which information on child sex offenders will be made available to the public. The Government has hinted that any new law that follows will be less extreme than America's. Parents will be told how many sex offenders live in their area but, unlike in some US states, not their names or addresses.

This has been presented as a concession to liberal qualms. But it could make the situation even worse. It does not require a great imaginative leap to worry that if ill-educated people learn there is a paedophile in their area, but are not told exactly where, they will make it their business to find out. Sir Chris Fox, a former president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, warned yesterday of the dangers of indirectly encouraging vigilantism.

Nor would such a law do much to protect children. They are statistically at far greater risk of sexual abuse from friends and family members than strangers. And even in terms of abuse by strangers, it is likely to prove counterproductive. The views of Martin Narey, the head of the children's charity Barnardo's and a former chief of the National Offender Management Service, on this subject hold considerable weight. Yesterday he called the policy "very, very bad news" and pointed out that sex offenders would be driven underground, beyond the supervision of probation officers. There is powerful evidence to back this up. Studies have shown that far fewer paedophiles comply with registration requirements in the US than in the UK. Such a law would also scupper any chance of offenders being successfully reintegrated into the community.

The timing of the revelation is suspicious. Last year, the Home Secretary, John Reid, downplayed expectations about the introduction of such a law. After his US trip to research Megan's Law, the Home Office minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, did the same. And Mr Narey says he was assured that the scheme would not be introduced. So why the apparent reversal? The news has certainly distracted attention from the Government's embarrassment over the 15 British sailors taken prisoner in Iran.

The first pilot is to take place in Somerset. The local MP, Labour's Dan Norris, proclaimed yesterday that "we mustn't duck or shirk our responsibility for protecting children". It is offensive nonsense to suggest that those who oppose this policy are "shirking" responsibility for protecting children. Of course every effort must be made to safeguard them from sex offenders. The problem is that such a foolish law would only end up putting children at greater risk - while at the same time making Britain a more paranoid and illiberal country.