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Network to close in on paedophiles

Investigation units to combat child abuse could be misused, civil liberties groups warn. Josephine Gardiner reports. Paedophiles are slipping through existing child protection nets because there are too many different agencies involved and too little contact between them, either across Britain or abroad, according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Last Tuesday the NSPCC called on the Government to set up and fund a special unit at the Home Office to co-ordinate all the people and agencies involved in child-protection - the police, social services, local authorities, parents, and teachers. Also proposed is a linked network of regional "investigation units" which would hold details on known abusers, cutting across local authority and police force boundaries.

The proposals follow public concern about international paedophile rings after child murders and widespread child abuse in Belgium, together with recent cases in this country involving sex offenders who escaped detection by moving about the country. Most child protection arrangements were set up to deal with abuse within families, says the NSPCC; the current system is simply not equipped to combat highly-organised paedophile networks which are "often well-resourced" and whose members may "hold respected and powerful positions in the community such as a doctor, minister of the church or politician".

Research by the NSPCC estimates that before an abuser is caught he will have attempted or committed 238 offences.

In May, following the sexual abuse and murder of nine-year-old Daniel Handley, the NSPCC proposed a national register of all people convicted of child sexual abuse. The idea was adopted by the Government and now forms part of a consultation paper. But, as the NSPCC points out, "sex abusers do not respect national boundaries", and a more comprehensive sexual offenders register should be established by the European Union, together with a register of missing or abducted children. Also needed is a thorough overhaul of the systems for vetting those seeking work with children, because abusers can be extremely plausible and patient in their efforts to get close to children, ingratiating themselves with employers, parents and carers before they attack.

The proposed multi-agency investigation centres could provoke fears that a secret police force was in the offing. A spokeswoman for Liberty said that while it would have no objections in principle to the local investigation units, it would still be important to ensure that innocent people were not being targeted maliciously through rumour and innuendo. "It's a difficult balance between protecting children and the rehabilitation of offenders issue." The council supports the introduction of a register of offenders, but not allowing local residents access to it as a matter of course.

Jackie Worrall of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders agreed that tougher measures were needed to combat paedophile rings, but that it was important that "we don't make it impossible for someone who exposed himself once while drunk to get work ever again".

The NSPCC is also demanding that the recommendations of the 1989 inquiry chaired by Judge Pigot should be fully implemented. Pigot said that children should be able to give all their evidence in videoed pre-trial hearings; under current rules the child can give initial evidence, but will have to return to court for cross-examination many months later.

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