Home secretary John Reid this week revived the idea of allowing parents access to details of sex offenders, under US legislation known as Megan’s law.
It was introduced in America following the murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994 by a known local paedophile. Megan’s law allows parents to find out if sex offenders live nearby.
Ray Wyre, a sexual crimes expert, says it is “unlikely” the government would implement legislation like Megan’s law because it would be “problematic.”
The idea that the UK could learn from the US is flawed, he adds: “A lot of states in the US think what we do here is better,” says Wyre.
Megan’s law has previously been comprehensively rejected by the government, and by children’s charities. The home secretary’s motivation in revisiting the debate again now must be questioned.
Wyre queries the current panic over sex offenders. “There is no evidence to show that child sex crime has risen over the last twenty years.
Fear of crime
“I wish the government would not keep creating fear of crime as parents will just start curtailing children’s lives,” he says.
Chief constable of Dyfed-Powys police Terry Grange, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on sex offenders, told the BBC that government policy on the subject is being influenced by tabloid newspapers.
The News of the World has consistently and stridently campaigned for a version of Megan’s law, dubbed Sarah’s law, following the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000.
Former home secretary David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes, the current children’s minister, both dismissed Megan’s law. When a Home Office minister in 2001 Hughes told MPs: “We are clear that widespread availability of names and addresses is not the way forward.”
This week Claire Phillips, who is director of policy and research for the England children’s commissioner Al Aynsley-Green, said a version of Megan’s law would not keep children safe from sex offenders.
“In fact, it could increase the risk of sexual abuse from strangers as offenders could be forced underground after being released into the community, making it more difficult for authorities to monitor them,” she said.
Evidence on the efficacy of Megan’s law in protecting children is lacking.
The NSPCC trawled for evidence in 2001.
It found that there was “very little” research on how access to sex offenders’ details empowered parents, or how parents used the information to protect children.
The NSPCC also found there was no evidence that Megan’s law had resulted in a decreased number of assaults by strangers on children.
While there was “some indication” that the legislation could result in harassment and vigilantism, there was little evidence on whether sex offenders had been driven “underground”.
Kathy Evans, director of policy at charity the Children’s Society, says any approaches considered by the government to ensure the safety of children and effective management of sex offenders in the community must be based on evidence.
“We want to see what works rather than proposals based on a panic reaction,” she adds.
The NSPCC says it would welcome new evidence on whether Megan’s law is working.
Zoe Hilton, policy adviser at the NSPCC says the government is right to tackle “real public concern” about how well children are protected from sex offenders in the community.
Sexual crimes expert Ray Wyre, who works with offenders, believes there are a “lot of other approaches for dealing with sex offenders the government could be looking at but they would not make the same headlines.”
Hilton at the NSPCC argues that the government should start by looking first at how well things are working on the ground in the UK.
The NSPCC is particularly concerned that risk assessments are not being consistently carried out in many cases, and that there are not enough sex offender treatment programmes available.
It is also concerned that multi-agency public protection arrangements – arrangements set up locally to assess and manage offenders who pose a risk of serious harm – are not working effectively.
“The NSPCC believes we need to know more about how sex offenders are being monitored on their release from prison and how information about them is being shared in the community,” Hilton says.
“The public needs reassurance that offenders who pose a risk to children do not slip through the net and that agencies work well together to protect children wherever they are. The government should look thoroughly at this.”
Improving children’s safety
Hilton also argues that improving children’s safety by properly managing sex offenders “is only one part of the answer.”
“To stop sex attacks on children, we need to help them speak out about abuse, encourage adults to act when they have concerns and nip potentially abusive behaviour in the bud before a child is harmed,” she says.
Phillips at the children’s commissioner’s office expressed concern that Megan’s law “could detract from the fact that children are actually most at risk from people known to them. We would prefer to see more efforts directed in this area with further emphasis on early therapeutic treatment for the victims of sexual abuse,” she said.
The other danger with Megan’s law is the risk of vigilante activity.
According to Terry Grange, chief constable at Dyfed Powys police, five individuals in America have been murdered in the last year “by people who have accessed the sex offenders’ register, gone to their houses and killed them”.
Following a News of the World campaign to “name and shame” paedophiles, a paediatrician in Wales was mistakenly attacked in 2000.