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Sarah's Law review skewed by handpicked sample

Home Office research raises questions

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Home Office jubilation over the "success" of its sex offender disclosure scheme may be premature amid yet more evidence of the Home Office twisting research to suit its own agenda.

That is the conclusion of sharp-eyed blogger, Hawktalk, who also questioned whether the way the scheme works in practice might create problems for wholly innocent individuals through the creation of misleading audit trails and over-zealous public officials applying the rule that "there’s no smoke without fire".

The Child Sexual Offender Review Disclosure (CSORD) – popularly referred to as "Sarah’s Law" – was piloted last year in four police forces: Hampshire, Warwickshire, Cambridge and Cleveland.

CSORD allows 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 the police, and those receiving it would be required to maintain what they learned in confidence. The focus is intended to be on disclosure in respect of convicted sex offenders.

A review of the scheme (pdf) by Home Office researchers was published earlier this month. The focus of the review was on the process of the CSORD – as opposed to the overall impact of the scheme – and was based on very limited data sets. According to the report:

The number of enquiries and subsequent disclosures under the scheme were smaller than initially anticipated: a total of 585 enquiries were made and 315 proceeded with as applications. Twenty-one disclosures (4% of applications) were made under the remit of the pilot with a further 11 applications resulting in non-pilot disclosures, i.e. information not relating to convictions for child sex offences.

When it came to looking at how the scheme had worked, the researchers were able to review just 159 applications – or just over half of those investigated by the police. This reduction in numbers appears to be because the police determined which cases to forward to the review body for evaluation, which raises questions about the soundness of the sampling procedure and possible bias introduced into the research by police forces.

If alarm bells were not ringing at that point, some additional concern should have been raised when it was revealed that the researchers were able to talk with just 43 of the individuals responsible for those applications. While the researchers inserted the usual caveats about concern due to sample size, the Home Office has nonetheless declared itself impressed with a scheme that is likely to make major inroads into the civil liberties of UK citizens – and signs are that they are likely to be rolling it out in future.

Hawktalk draws attention to a number of flaws in the scheme that appear not even to have crossed the researchers’ radar. Table 7 of the Home Office report shows that 54 per cent of the individuals investigated did not have access to the children named in the application. In other words, over half of the applications should have fallen at the first hurdle.

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