Leading article: Abuse should be tackled at its root

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The Independent Online
WE, like the Home Secretary, understand why there is so much anxiety and anger about the release of Sidney Cooke. Cooke was, we should remind ourselves, part of a gang responsible for the sexual abuse, torture and killing of a 14-year-old boy, Jason Swift. He is routinely accused of being involved in other cases of child murder. According to much of the press, Sidney Cooke is a "monster", a "beast", an "evil pervert".

If only that were all that he is. He is also, like many paedophiles, intelligent, crafty and cunning. Most importantly he is, we believe, willing to offend again. He is a dangerous man. For that reason he should still be in very secure custody.

Of course we have, reluctantly, to accept that the authorities had to release Cooke from prison. When he was convicted for his crimes in 1989 he was initially sentenced to serve 19 years in prison for manslaughter. This was reduced on appeal to 16 years and now, after two-thirds of that time, he automatically qualifies for release. So he has served his sentence and the authorities are bound by law to let him go.

The fault, in other words, lies in the law. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens, especially the most vulnerable. Children have a right to live their lives in safety and to enjoy their childhood as children, not as adults before their time. Mr Straw, a Home Secretary - in a government pledged to be "tough on crime", remember - has quickly brought forward his solution. He is considering a change to the law which would keep people like Sidney Cooke locked up. From 2000, judges will be able to take expert advice on the sentencing and release of sex offenders and the threat they represent to the community. As the Home Secretary puts it: "At the moment paedophiles can be imprisoned almost indefinitely only if they have committed the most appalling of offences. A new sentence would allow dangerous paedophiles to be detained indefinitely after their first offence, possibly before they inflict terrible harm."

We welcome this proposal. And we hope that Jack Straw will take up the suggestion of Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, that proposals to keep dangerous paedophiles in custody should be brought forward now, as part of this year's Crime and Disorder Bill, rather than waiting until for a new Bill to be passed in the next session of Parliament.

That still leaves us with the problem of an estimated 150 serious sex offenders who, because they were convicted before 1992, fall through the existing legal loophole and will be freed without supervision over the next few years. Of these 150, about half a dozen are as dangerous as Cooke. All the authorities can do they are doing now. They must continue to persuade or cajole these men into believing that their own best interests are served by volunteering to be kept under supervision. When it arrives they should also not hesitate to apply for the new Sex Offender Order. This will ban offenders from hanging around schools, libraries, playgrounds and so on. If they persist in this then they will face up to five years' imprisonment.

Mr Straw is right to address the problems raised by the Cooke case with new legislation. He is right, in other words, to be "tough on crime". But the small number of "celebrity paedophiles" should not distract us from the much wider picture of child abuse. Mr Straw needs to be as tough on the causes of this crime as he wishes to be on its perpetrators. He, as must we all, begin by recognising the scale of the problem.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service estimates there are 25,000 suspected child abusers in Britain. Home Office studies put the figure even higher, at 110,000 for England and Wales alone. Many paedophiles, including the likes of Sidney Cooke, were themselves sexually abused as children. So far, thousands of convicted abusers have come forward to have their names placed on the new national paedophile register. These are horrifying statistics indicative of a problem the scale of which has become apparent only in recent years.

Home Office Ministers must begin to tackle the roots of the problem of child abuse with the same energy and determination that they have shown toward punishing those guilty of it. Much better policing of children's homes and policies to strengthen family life will not end child abuse. But it may start to wind down this particular cycle of cruelty.