Does Sarah's law work?

Richard Garside
Monday, 23 December 2013

The appalling case of Bijan Ebrahimi, a disabled Iranian national subjected to a sustained campaign of victimisation and attacks by his neighbours, is a salutory lesson in what can happen when fear and loathing is stirred up. Wrongly branded a paedophile, he was killed earlier this year in what The Independent dubbed 'a modern British murder'.

Back in 2000 I was part of a coalition of charities, police and probation representatives that sought, successfully, to persuade the now-defunct News of the World to drop its highly damaging 'name and shame' campaign. The campaign followed the awful kidnapping and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by Roy Whiting, a man with a previous conviction for child sexual abuse.

Over successive Sundays in July of that year the News of the World published dozens of pictures and names of individuals they claimed had perpetrated child sex offences. A so-called 'Sarah's Law' was needed, the paper argued, to inform parents about convicted paedophiles in their neighbourhood. If the police were not going to tell them, the paper would.

The result was immediate, and damaging.

Innocent members of the public were attacked by groups who mistook them for those named in the paper. In the most notorious case, a doctor in South Wales fled her home in fear of her life. The vigiliantes who targeted her said she was a paedophile. She was, in fact, a paediatrician.

At a meeting at News International a few weeks after the name and shame campaign had started, the News of the World executives present - Rebecca Wade (now Brooks), Andy Coulson and Stuart Kuttner - were bullish and hectoring. Sara and Michael Payne, by contrast, appeared rather more circumspect. Two parents who had been through the most awful of ordeals, they came across as thoughtful and reflective.

At one point during the discussion Sara Payne turned to Rebecca Wade to suggest the campaign should be stopped. Rebecca Wade stonewalled at the meeting. Within a week, however, the newspaper relented.

Fast forward some thirteen years and we have reports this morning that 700 paedophiles have been identified since 2011 as a result of 'Sarah's Law'.

More prosaicly known as the 'child sex offender disclosure scheme', it allows parents or guardians of children to ask the police if a person who has contact with their child has a record of child sexual offences. The record of offences can include unproven allegations. There is a presumption in favour of disclosure if an individual has a conviction.

This highly controlled scheme differs greatly from the uncontrolled public outing of convicted child sex offenders originally called for by the News of the World. Indeed, of the around 4,700 applications to the police since 2011, only around 700 disclosures have been made.

Put another way, some 4,000 requests for information resulted in nothing being disclosed, presumably because in the vast majority of cases there was nothing to disclose.

There is no information on who made the applications, what their motives were, what the outcome of disclosure or non-disclosure was, or indeed how many applications have been made. The figures we have are incomplete, pulled together by the Press Association on the basis of Freedom of Information requests.

I suspect it says something about how seriously the government takes the child sex offender disclosure scheme that it has not invested any resources into supporting even the most basic of official data collection or statistical analysis of its operation and outcomes.

But then, put in the context of the scale of the problem the child sex offender disclosure scheme is a tokenistic drop in a very big ocean of child abuse.

According to the latest statistics from the NSPCC one in twenty children and young people under the age of 18 say they have experienced sexual abuse involving contact. This is several million children. In 90 percent of these cases, the abuser was known to the victim. A third of child victims of adult abusers told nobody else about the abuse.

Tackling child sexual exploitation in a meaningful manner will require sustained work, involving families, communities, public, civil society and private bodies over several decades. In the United States an organisation called generationFive aims to end the sexual abuse of children within five generations. This is the kind of long-term thinking we need in the United Kingdom.

Instead, worried parents, alongside individuals with possibly more base motives, are offered the chance to get the lowdown on a disliked neighbour, a weird relative, a new partner of an ex-partner or just someone who seems a bit odd. That so few have taken up this opportunity suggests that the British public are more thoughtful and intelligent than policy makers and tabloid newspapers often tend to treat them.

We really can do better than this.

I debated the issues raised by the child sex offender disclosure scheme on the BBC Radio Four Today programme this morning. Listen to it here for the next seven days (45 minutes in).