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Northern Ireland version of Sarah's Law moves closer after Justice Minister backs plan

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 30/05/2015

Sarah Payne
Sarah Payne

A Northern Ireland version of Sarah's Law has moved a step closer after the Justice Minister gave his backing to proposals.

David Ford has signalled his support for an offender disclosure amendment to the Justice Bill.

If passed by the Assembly it would mean parents could be informed if someone had a history of violence or sex crime.

It goes beyond Sarah's Law, which was introduced in England and Wales after the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000 by convicted paedophile Roy Whiting.

Unlike the existing law, which only permits details of sex offences against a child to be disclosed, the amendment allows for disclosure of any previous crime which could cause concern of risk to children.

It has been tabled by DUP MLAs Lord Morrow and Paul Frew and will be debated by the Assembly on Tuesday. If passed, it will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

Sarah's Law, known formally as the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, was introduced in England and Wales following a long campaign by Sara Payne.

Lord Morrow has been lobbying for a similar law in Northern Ireland. He has now joined forces with Mr Frew, who sits on the Assembly's justice committee, in a bid to push legislation through.

The MLAs said it was clear from their consultations that a change in the law was urgently required.

Lord Morrow said engagement with the Department of Justice and NSPCC had allowed the scope of the legislation to be widened.

He confirmed Mr Ford was supporting his amendment.

"What we are now putting forward is a more encompassing safeguard, which will be known as Child Protection Disclosure," he said.

Lord Morrow said the Northern Ireland version would expand and extend safety measures for children.

"The existing law permits only the disclosure of sexual offences against a child, whereas our amendment allows for any disclosure of a previous finding - sexual or violent against an adult or child - which could therefore lead to a concern of risk to a child," he said.

"It is encouraging to learn the Minister for Justice will be supporting our amendment. In the event the Assembly passes this into legislation we intend to share our work with our counterparts in England and Wales and they will hopefully follow our lead in adding to their existing safeguards."

Mr Frew, an MLA for North Antrim, said parents and responsible adults should be given as much information as possible to assist them in raising children safely.

"We already have a disclosure system here in Northern Ireland but it only works one way," he said. "This amendment will allow members of the public to apply for disclosure of information on particular people who come into contact with their children. Parents or those with direct care should not be the last to know if their children are at risk. Children are naturally vulnerable, and this amendment will go some way to allow parents and carers to risk-manage their family."

Mr Frew said the proposals will seek to prevent the misuse of information which is disclosed.

In March Mr Ford had indicated he had no plans to alter the system of disclosure. A statement from the Department of Justice last night said: "The minister had been cautious about the introduction of wider disclosure measures given the concerns that had been raised by the PSNI.

"However, departmental officials have now worked with Paul Frew MLA to produce a clause which takes account of some of the concerns and which will allow the police, in co-operation with other criminal justice agencies, to deliver the information in a controlled way within the existing multi-agency public protection arrangements."

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