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Home Office says 'no decision' yet on sex offender disclosure

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The News of the World appears to have jumped the gun with its "exclusive" report that the government now intends to roll out "Sarah’s Law", with the Home Office officially declaring no such decision has been taken.

At the same time, the paper has overlooked the rather larger embarrassment that a supposedly confidential report into a sensitive pilot scheme has somehow leaked into the public domain.

In September 2008, four English police forces – Hampshire, Warwickshire, Cambridge and Cleveland - joined together in the Child Sexual Offender Review Disclosure Pilot (CSORD) to allow parents and those with responsibility for children to obtain information about the past (sexual) history of specific adults in contact with their children. Information would be provided at the discretion of police forces: those receiving it would be required to maintain what they learnt in confidence; and for the most part, the focus was intended to be on disclosure in respect of convicted sex offenders.

The idea that government is about to roll the scheme out is based on a statement from Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who said: "Early results are extremely encouraging and the pilot has provided crucial protection for children who might otherwise be at risk.

"We are still evaluating the results from the year long pilot and are talking to the police and children's charities before a final decision on rolling out the scheme is made shortly."

This is not exactly conclusive, and is definitely intended not to be – as a short call to the Home Office revealed. The response, from several spokespeople, was unanimous: the Home Secretary has NOT yet made up his mind on this issue, though expects to do so in the not too distant future.

It is possible that the News of the World, which has long been an advocate of this initiative, is merely doing some wishful thinking. On the other hand, they did publish some very interesting background figures. They reported: "Academics from De Montfort University, Leicester, kept a close watch as inquiries were made by 585 concerned parents in the 12 months up to September 2009.

"Of those, 315 were treated as applications for information about suspected individuals. The researchers concentrated on 195 cases and their report to the Home Office found that at least 24 children had been at risk from convicted sex offenders."

This is presumed to be an extract from a report due out in December 2009 and supervised by Professor Hazel Kemshall, a member of De Montfort University’s Health and Life Sciences faculty, specialising in risk assessment and management of offenders. She has also been involved in a number of similar projects for government and the Home Office.

So where did the News of the World get its information from – and is it accurate? Neither the Home Office nor De Montfort University were willing to comment, or even to confirm the accuracy of the information reported on by the News of the World – and subsequently picked up by various other newspapers.

The question therefore remains as to whether this is cock-up or conspiracy.

If it is a leak, then it is highly embarrassing for government that intimate details of one of its flagship schemes should seep into the tabloid press in this manner. Someone either in the Home Office or at De Montfort may be in deep water.

Alternatively, conspiracy theorists are not short of explanations: it can do little harm to a government in the run-up to a general election to be able to use the leak of such information and the ensuing publicity as a means to look tough. Furthermore, if there are problems with the scheme, then such a leak could greatly help in terms of bouncing the government into premature action.

In the end, we shall probably never know exactly how the information got out: but for once, a leak appears to have worked very much to government’s advantage. ®

Bootnote

Critics of the scheme have been unhappy about extending the disclosure of information to include convictions for domestic violence and, most controversially, to "soft information", which would include allegations of sexual misconduct never proven in court.

At the six month stage, the police forces declared themselves pleased with the result – 150 inquiries, 79 applications for information and 10 disclosures of information - and extended the scheme within the area that they covered.

At the 12-month mark, the pilot was continued: a helpful factsheet (doc) from the Warwickshire Probation Service suggests that the scheme has been safeguarding children. It states: "As a result of the enquiries received under the pilot a number of safeguarding concerns have been highlighted and action taken to protect children".

In response to potential criticism it adds: "Early observations from those working on the pilot indicate that convicted child sexual offenders have not gone underground".

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