Here we go again. The Home Secretary has sent his Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe MP, to America to see what the impact of Megan’s Law has been. The law related to circulating information about paedophiles to their neighbourhoods so that parents could be aware of the threat they might pose. Care will need to be taken, however, in transferring any of the lessons learnt from the United States to Britain, as the cultures differ.
Ideally, all major social problems should be shared openly with the community, whose members should deal with them calmly and rationally. It was on this basis that two children who murdered another in Norway were re-integrated into their school after a fairly short break. But in Britain, the two boys who killed Jamie Bolger had to be locked up in secure units and returned to the community under false names. Unhappily, we have a strong vigilante streak in our culture which, when coupled with poor spelling ability, has been sufficient for a paediatrician’s home to be attacked.
The News of the World may believe that they are on a moral crusade in wanting to out paedophiles, but the people who are roused to action by their campaigning are not capable of distinguishing between types of offender or levels of offence. Sexual offending against children is a complex field. At one end of the spectrum there are serious serial paedophiles who want to gratify themselves regardless of the impact on the children they abuse, and at the other there are family members who are loved by their victims despite the abuse. They need different responses.
We have serious doubts as the viability of implementing Megan’s Law. Would it cover all offenders, or would it exclude those who have only abused family members? Would the offenders have to be restricted to the area where people have been notified about them, as they might offend elsewhere? Would their offences ever be deemed spent, even if their record related to adolescent behaviour? How would we stop vigilante action? How would we trace offenders who had gone under ground?
As alternatives to Megan’s Law, it would be possible to provide agencies with sufficient resources to monitor paedophiles more closely, and to focus efforts on ensuring that existing services function effectively, rather than set up a whole new system. With modern technology it would take little effort to identify areas where hostels could be sited away from children, for example on trading estates. Local authorities could be required to plan, so that every community has a range of accommodation to house offenders with appropriate levels of supervision, to avoid grouping large numbers of offenders together. Supervision under licence could be extended for as long as people judge that the offenders present a risk. Circles of support could be developed to support and monitor offenders in the community. All these measures could have a real impact, as some of them demonstrably do.
We hope that the Home Secretary goes for the long-term solution, with all the slog of daily supervision which is entailed, rather than the quick fix that would keep the News of the World happy.