Time to take a stand

The Sunday paper thuds on to the mat and with the inevitability of
a piece about the Royal Family, there it is, on the front page, yet
another story about sex offenders. One week it is a “plan” to
implant tags under the skin of paedophiles so that their movements
can be tracked. Another week, the focus is on internet child abuse.
Next week – who knows?

That the media – and, by extension, the public – should be
concerned about child protection is both understandable and
laudable. But shining the light of publicity on an issue that has
been in the shadows for generations also brings with it a
responsibility; one of moving society towards a better
understanding of where the risks of abuse are greatest while
obliging government to be upfront and honest about its strategy for
harm reduction. It is a responsibility that patently is not being

Community Care carried a thoughtful piece about the closure in July
of the only residential treatment centre for paedophiles,
Wolvercote in Surrey, after public protests stopped its attempt to
relocate to the Silverlands site near Chertsey in
Surrey.1 In July, the
Home Office stated that it regretted the closure and announced that
the National Probation Service would launch a review of how such
sites can be found, with the aim of reopening Wolvercote “as a
matter of priority”.2
The level of priority that the Home Office attaches to this
commitment can be gauged by the fact that the review did not even
begin until November, when a research team at Birmingham University
was commissioned to carry out an assessment of how many sex
offenders were in need of residential treatment. The minister for
prisons and probation, Hilary Benn, explains the delay thus: “It is
very important to get this right rather than done quickly. The
truth is that Wolvercote has been trying to relocate for a number
of years. Silverlands was merely the latest setback and it’s time
to draw breath and learn the lessons from that experience.”

One has to ask why it took until the summer of 2002 for the
government to acknowledge that lessons needed to be learned about
the public’s reluctance – often fanned by local and national media
– to accept the presence of sex offenders in their backyard. After
all, even from the lofty heights of the Home Office at Queen Anne’s
Gate, London, it has been obvious that it has been getting harder
and harder to secure planning permission for probation hostels (now
renamed approved premises), to the point where officials in the
National Probation Directorate are talking, privately, about the
community-based sex offender strategy being under grave threat.
When hostels for female offenders are firebombed even before they
are due to open, as happened in Greater Manchester, you know you
have a public perception problem on your hands.

The successful campaign to prevent Wolvercote transferring to the
Silverlands site was a mirror image of what happened in Balham,
south west London, in 2000 when plans to reopen a former bail and
probation hostel, Bedford Hill, collapsed once local residents
learned that it was to house sex offenders. One reason was the
ham-fisted way in which the consultation process with the community
of south west London was conducted.

Sounds familiar? This was why Home Office minister Beverley Hughes
stepped in to halt the Wolvercote transfer this summer. Perhaps she
and her colleagues should have talked to John Adams, the chief
executive of the Langley House Trust, which would have managed the
Bedford Hill hostel had it gone ahead. He wrote at the time:
“Éwith hindsight, we should have had a proactive campaign in
place before we even set foot in the territory. We had done our
preparations on interagency social work and risk management, but
there was nothing on the public relations side.”

And this is the nettle that the government has still declined to
grasp. When the review is completed, there may well be a compelling
case for a network of treatment and assessment clinics for sex
offenders. The manager of Wolvercote, Donald Findlater, who has
long complained that the country is “rudderless” when it comes to a
coherent sex offender strategy, says he will be surprised if the
figure is fewer than eight clinics – and expects it to be higher
than that. (A highly placed official in the National Probation
Directorate agrees.)

But what will ministers do with the evidence? Tink Palmer,
principal policy officer at Barnardo’s, is not optimistic. “I fear
there might be another retreat. The government has enough
information from all of us working in this field to know how to
take the matter forward. Money needs to be ring-fenced for
treatment and public health education. And there needs to be a
strategic view. But we know that it is not popular

Benn concedes that it is never going to be easy to persuade public
opinion to accept treatment clinics and hostels for sex offenders.
“But the first thing we must do is provide an analysis of the need
for such treatment. This is what the Silverlands protesters told us
we had failed to do. As for where to locate sites, perhaps we
should be thinking of placing clinics alongside prisons to allay
public anxieties.” Given the furore that surrounded the
establishment at Nottingham prison of a secure unit for a handful
of high-risk paedophiles who had completed their sentence, this
hardly sounds like a leap forward in thinking.

What would be a bold step is for a government minister to admit
publicly that the criminal justice system is not going to change
the pernicious culture that has allowed child abusers to escape the
consequences of their behaviour for far too long – nor even a
system in which prosecutors are armed with a broader battery of
powers than at present.

To his credit, Benn attended the launch in September of the
country’s first Stop it Now project in Surrey. Stop it Now, an idea
imported from Vermont, US, aims to raise public awareness of child
sex abuse and to turn attitudes around in much the way that the
dangers of smoking and drink-driving were branded into the national
psyche. Since a Surrey helpline was set up in June, well over 100
calls have been taken, a significant number of them from people
admitting they had sexual urges towards children. If Benn’s
endorsement had been press-released by the Home Office in the way
it routinely trumpets other policy moves, one might believe that
child protection was being addressed with all the clubs in the bag
rather than just one.

It would also be a good thing if the popular media could
occasionally see the bigger picture rather than keep playing the
same old soundtrack of partial truth and prejudice. The News of the
World campaigned against the transfer of Wolvercote to Silverlands
on the grounds that the new site was six miles from the home of
Sarah Payne’s parents.

If that is considered a more fitting tribute to the memory of the
murdered eight-year-old than genuinely seeking to advance child
protection, this country is in a sorry state indeed.

Jon Silverman is a former BBC home affairs correspondent
and joint author – with Professor David Wilson – of Innocence
Betrayed, published this year by Policy Press


1 N Valios, “Lights go out on treatment”, Community Care, 10
October 2002

2 Home Office, Wolvercote: Review of Residential Treatment for Sex
Offenders, 189/2000, 4 July 2002

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