New plans to protect children from sexual abuse threaten civil liberties and are a charter for vindictive claims, writes Jonathan Rayner.
It’s a minefield, but it has to be said: the latest campaign to protect children from sexual abuse is, in the words of a leading criminal law solicitor, a ‘dangerous move’ – because it promises to undermine the civil liberties of innocent people by imposing punitive restrictions upon them.
Who are these innocent people? They are suspected sex offenders as opposed to convicted sex offenders, and the way the law works in this country - last time I checked - is you are deemed innocent until proved guilty.
The campaign, begun by Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, proposes turning innocent-until-proved-guilty on its head and imposing restrictions on suspects, even if suspicion is based only on hearsay.
These restrictions could curtail a suspect’s movements, banning them from the vicinity of schools, for example, or recreation parks.
Which could prove hugely problematic for a suspect who is also a parent and would like to attend a child’s nativity play, or football match, or even just deliver the child to the school gates.
And how do you explain to your child that you can’t take him or her to the park for a ride on the swings?
Let’s consider a restriction forbidding you to be at home with a child without another adult being present? What do you do if your partner wants to nip out to the shops?
So how does the ‘Childhood Lost’ campaign propose implementing these manifestly unfair and impracticable restrictions? It aims to strengthen police powers to prevent the grooming and exploitation of children by amending the Antisocial Behaviour Bill to include a new sanction, a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Order. This will allow the police to restrict suspected offenders’ movements.
Blackwood claims that this could simplify the current system and allow police to pursue grooming gangs more vigorously.
Which is all very laudable, except punishing someone who is suspected of an offence through hearsay is a charter for vindictive claims. Don’t like your schoolteacher or the neighbour who tells you to keep out of his garden? Accuse him of being a sex offender, that’ll shut him up.
What about your former husband who ran off with your best friend? Get a restrictive order on him for allegedly abusing the children you share – you can rely on hearsay, rather than concrete proof. Revenge is sweet, and in this case so easy.
Law Society criminal law committee chair Richard Atkinson told me: ‘It is a dangerous move to take away the requirement for a conviction to make a restrictive order, not least because the order will be interpreted as proof that you committed the offence and that you are indeed a paedophile.
‘Also, if you resort to litigation to resist the restrictions, you are effectively telling the prosecution in advance how you intend to conduct your defence – giving the prosecution two bites of the cherry.’
A minefield indeed, albeit a populist measure that will attract the usual defence of ‘no smoke without fire’. Secret court hearings and now this. Where will the gradual erosion of this country’s civil liberties cease?
Jonathan Rayner is a reporter on the Gazette