Scepticism as Megan’s Law comes to UK

New trials to introduce a version of ‘Megan’s Law’ in the UK will focus on improving child safety in the home, rather than informing parents how many paedophiles live in their local area.

Home Office pilot schemes will trial a number of proposals intended to help parents stop known paedophiles coming into contact with their children.

The first pilot will take place in north-east Somerset and local Labour MP Dan Norris has welcomed the news, having long campaigned for a version of Megan’s Law in the UK.

However, children charities and opposition MPs have warned the move risks undermining child safety by driving paedophiles underground.

Citing local election guidelines, the Home Office has refused to comment on the precise nature of the trials, but initially said media reports, including claims parents would be told of local sex offenders, were “broadly accurate”.

Measures likely to be trialed in Somerset are a watered down version of Megan’s Law in the US, which gives parents the right to the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles. At best parents may be able to demand to know how many convicted paedophiles are living in their area, near their child’s school and on their child’s route to school.

It is likely single mothers could also inquire whether a new partner, or anyone likely to be left alone with children, is on the sex offenders register

Mr Norris, who has long lobbied the prime minister and home secretary for a version of Megan’s Law, welcomed the pilot.

“This is truly terrific news for children and their safety and an important blow in the fight against paedophiles and the harm and misery they cause. I could not be more pleased,” he said.

It is thought the pilots will run for three to six months before the rights could be rolled out nationwide. It is expected that Home Office officials will examine how many people use the new powers and what impact they have on local communities before deciding whether to adopt the measures nationwide.

Recognising the controversy surrounding Megan’s Law, Mr Norris said: “This legislation will be difficult and challenging to get right, which is why it is important that it is thoroughly trialled. But we owe it to all our children to ensure they are safe as possible.

“I’m confident everyone involved in child protection in Wansdyke will be keen to shape new laws that will help protect children right across the UK.”

However, the Liberal Democrats warned a ‘naming and shaming’ approach to child protection risked driving paedophiles underground.

Home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg accused the home secretary John Reid of promising a UK version of Megan’s Law to “certain newspapers”, many of whom have campaigned for ‘Sarah’s Law’, before evidence supporting it is available.

Furthermore, evidence from the US suggests publishing the identities of sex offenders drives them underground out of supervision, Mr Clegg said. “That is why this pilot project must be conducted with great caution in order to avoid the shortcomings of Megan’s Law in the United States,” he warned.

And Barnardo’s argued the powers would bring “false comfort” for parents and put children in “immense danger”.

Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive, said: “I understand why this is attractive to parents but it gives them false comfort. We are quite certain that this will put children in more danger.

“There are already sound and workable arrangements whereby, for example, head teachers are made aware of the proximity of sex offenders. But a more general arrangement where anyone can be told there are sex offenders in their area will, inevitably, lead to them fleeing supervision.”