Deborah Orr: The real scandal of Gary Glitter

It is estimated that worldwide, 1 million children are vulnerable to abuse by sexual tourists

Wednesday 20 August 2008 00:00 BST

Before Gary Glitter made his break for freedom in Thailand last night, Le Thanh Kinh, his Vietnamese lawyer, said that his client was looking forward to coming back to Britain now that his 27-month sentence for sex offences against girls of 11 and 12 is over. So the 64-year-old former pop star should be. Britain is the best place for him to be, and not just because of the free health care he is said to be longing to take advantage of.

Here, due to the recent evolution of laws that are both robust and humane, Glitter could, if he wished to, access much support in safeguarding himself from his own proclivities and their consequences. Surely he cannot wish to find himself in prison again, either here or abroad? More importantly, even without his co-operation, strict procedures are in place nowadays to protect his potential victims.

No doubt Glitter might have to be persuaded that the present arrangements are for his benefit as well as the benefit of others. There is every reason to believe that he would be able to indulge his urges in this country without much fear of exposure for many years.

There is a tendency to believe that since the internet's arrival, paedophiles have never had it so good. In truth, however, the internet has offered an opportunity to gather hard evidence against paedophile networks. That opportunity has been quickly and diligently exploited. The establishment of the Ceop (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) is considered to be one of the most successful innovations in contemporary policing.

In 1997, it took a conscientious repair man at PC World to alert the police to the 4,000 pornographic images of children that Glitter had stored on his computer – evidence in itself that Glitter was cavalier about his perversions. This discovery led, famously, to Glitter's conviction on 54 counts of possession of child pornography.

But it led also to a trial for his alleged abuse of Alison Brown, who came forward at the time of his arrest on those other charges to report that he had formed a relationship with her when she was 14 years old, at the end of the 1970s. Her parents had encouraged the friendship, which Brown maintains had quickly become sexual. Glitter denied those charges and was acquitted. But what is horrible is that Brown's accusations had been in the public domain for a long time before the computer images came to light, without a ripple of interest from the police. She had previously approached the News of the World in 1987 and in 1993.

There may not have been the evidence to prove Brown's case. Yet a visit to his home would have revealed what was on his computer without the need for a trip to the repair man. Many retrospective cases in recent decades have shown just how unable young people have been in the past to access adults who would listen sympathetically to their accusations of abuse. The still unfolding horror in Jersey is only one such grisly episode.

It may now be much less easy in this country to conduct abuse under the aegis of an institution such as a church, a care home or a school. It may also be less easy for an adult to gain the trust of a parent, after similarly disturbing stories to Brown's have been widely publicised. But Glitter is by no means the only person to have realised that there are still many opportunities for child abuse abroad.

Glitter is now a target wherever he goes in the world, even if he is foolish enough in future to try another "fresh start". Yet abroad, British nationals do still inveigle their way into work as teachers or as care workers and sometimes, just as in Jersey 30 years ago, there is no great willingness to expose such places locally. It is estimated that worldwide, 1 million children are vulnerable to abuse by sexual tourists, and until recently Britain has been as uninterested in protecting children from British people abroad as it once was in protecting them at home.

Thankfully, the law has changed in this country, even since Glitter was allowed to wander off round the world at the beginning of the decade, untrammelled by his inclusion on the Sex Offenders' Register in 1999. The huge international public interest in him has made it difficult for him to disappear after his deportation from Vietnam, just as it made it difficult for him to disappear in Spain, Cuba, or Cambodia. Tabloid pursuit of Glitter may well be uncivilised and distasteful. Spain's disregard for the UN rights of the child in keeping the age of consent at 13 is a more important issue than that of Glitter's presence in the country, for example. But at least his lamentable tale has the potential to draw attention to a much more widespread horror. If the taboids don't track British paodophiles abroad, then no one tends to at all.

Workers for the charity Ecpat (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), took advantage of Glitter's release to suggest that the British authorities tend to "turn a blind eye" to British nationals indulging in child sex tourism. They were right to do so. Glitter's case is a perfect opportunity for Britain to start practising what it has recently been preaching. Even if procedures are not yet properly applied, as Ecpat argues, a number are at least there to be used now.

Since the Sex Offenders Act 2003, monitoring of sex offenders is much tougher. As soon as Glitter returns he will be put back on the register as a matter of course – as are all people entering this country with convictions for sexual offences. Inclusion will ensure that he is monitored by a variety of trained professionals, and also encouraged to join well-funded self-help groups aimed at supporting offenders who wish to curb their abusive tendencies. Those of the "string-em-up" persuasion might be incensed by such deployment of public money and effort. But these strategies are in place because they protect children, not because they protect the adults who would like to do them harm.

It's also likely, under the same rules, that Glitter will be the subject of a sexual offences prevention order, which will curb his ability to place himself in situations where he may be able to make approaches to children. Glitter should also, given his behaviour abroad, be served with a foreign travel order, which will compel him to tell the police when he is intending to travel abroad, and allow the police to share that information with their colleagues at the destination country, if it is decided that the journey should even be allowed. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, yesterday said that she believed Glitter should be subject to such an order.

Yet, as Ecpat highlights, only five such orders were issued between 2004 and 2007, even though at least 15 British nationals were charged in Thailand alone for child sex offences during that time. Glitter deserves to be allowed to live quietly in Britain as long as he obeys the robust laws that are designed to curb people with problems such as his. The real scandal is that there are so many more like Glitter, who are never brought back to Britain at all.

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