Leading article: Child protection and proportion

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The Independent Online

It is not uncommon for dreadful crimes to prompt public demands for some sort of dramatic response from the authorities. Usually, nothing comes of them. But the murder of Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender in 2000 is different. Eight years after that appalling crime, the demands from Sarah's mother that the Government take action appear to have borne fruit. The Home Office begins a trial scheme today in which parents in parts of Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Cleveland and Warwickshire will be able to ask police if anyone with access to their child is a convicted paedophile.

So is this a British version of America's "Megan's Law", named after the victim of a similar child murder in the United States? In fact, it is a very different animal. The US law allows states to publish the names, addresses and pictures of convicted local paedophiles. This information can even be found online, accessible to anyone with internet access. Access to such information in Britain under this trial scheme will be far more limited. Details will only be given out to parents and guardians, who will have to prove their identity. And any parent maliciously sharing the information given to them could face prosecution.

It is a relief that the US approach has been rejected. We have seen the consequences when public hysteria about local paedophiles is whipped up by sections of the media, and it is not pretty. It would have been grossly irresponsible for the Government to have done anything to facilitate mob violence. The likelihood is that making the names and addresses of child sex offenders publicly available would have achieved precisely that.

Moreover, there is evidence that blanket disclosure of sex offenders' details simply puts children at greater risk. Some child protection charities argue that Megan's Law in the US has merely driven convicted sex offenders underground and out of sight of the authorities. This seems to be borne out by the facts. Only 80 per cent of paedophiles typically comply with registration requirements in the US, compared with 97 per cent in the UK.

So the remaining question is whether this British scheme has anything to recommend it? It seems reasonable and proportionate that mothers with new partners, about whose pasts they are unsure, should be able to request basic background checks. It is a sound principle that parents should have a right to any information that can help them directly protect their children.

If this scheme can help inform concerned parents, without stoking public hysteria, it should be rolled out nationwide. But the Government needs to proceed with caution and keep a sharp look-out for any hint that it is being misused.