Leading article: The wrong way to protect children

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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary's decision to extend the provisions of "Sarah's Law" to the whole country was to be expected, although it's no more welcome for all that.

After a previous home secretary, John Reid, unveiled a pilot scheme, put into operation in four areas in Britain in 2008, it was always likely that a politician with Theresa May's populist instincts would move to roll it out nationwide.

No one doubts that the law has an instant popular appeal. Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter was abducted and killed by a paedophile 10 years ago, and after whom the law is named, remains absolutely convinced of its rightness. She believes that children could be saved from undergoing the same appalling fate as her daughter were the public to have a right to check the names of all persons having contact with their children against a list of sex offenders. The police also seem broadly supportive of the law.

Nevertheless, there are still reasons for feeling cautious. One longstanding concern has been that it will encourage vigilantism, prompting some people to take the law into their own hands. Of course we cannot be certain that this will happen; the evidence is neither one way nor the other from those states in the US where the similar Megan's Law has been in operation for some time. But it remains a worry, as is the related danger that innocent people may be singled out for attack on the basis of mistaken information.

Video: Sarah's law set for national roll-out

Another concern is that the law will in some ways offer the public a misleading feeling of reassurance that their children are safe when that may not be the case. It is comforting to think of sexual abusers of children as a group of identifiable men whose names can be placed on an accessible list, rendering everyone secure. But most abusers are not lurking "out there", like Sarah Payne's attacker; they are ensconced in the home, as relatives and even parents of the victims.

The best way to counter sexual abuse of children is not through the publication of lists of convicted paedophiles but through greater vigilance on the part of the whole of society. This means teachers, doctors, relatives and neighbours keeping a keen eye out for signs that something is wrong with a child and knowing how to communicate such concerns speedily to the police. It means having enough police who are trained in this field who can respond to concerns and investigate claims thoroughly. The risk is that Sarah's Law will turn out to be little more than a diversion.