Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spinning Sarah's Law and the Branding of Legislation

I love this Press Release from the Home Office on the use of Sarah's Law in its first year. It actually reads backwards. I've copied and pasted it here for study purposes, but I'll paste the headline and first 4 paragraphs in reverse order.
If [an] individual has convictions for sexual offences against children or poses a risk of causing harm then the police can choose to disclose this information to the parent, carer or guardian.
(Emphasis added. Note that this category of offences is actually two categories - sexual and other. Theresa May is happy to conflate the two though, as is the later headline, when she refers purely to "predatory sex offenders" in her comment later in the release.)
The scheme, known as 'Sarah's Law', was rolled out across all police forces in England and Wales from 4 April 2011.  It allows anyone to ask the police to check whether people who have contact with children pose a risk. 
Is it a scheme, a law, support, or what? The use of the word "Law" is hammered home in its branded nomenclature for sure, but here it seems to be described as a general system of information. The use of the word "Law" alongside someone's name is even more fascinating; the scheme is to open up information on the offenders, and yet the focal name is that of the victim.

The tying of legislation to a historical individual is curious to begin with - the formalisation of the idea that law is a memorial, the idea that "we shall not forget" through the use of branding. But is it Sarah's law? If a law is based on an individual, why should it be applied to all? On the other hand, if it has been put in place to assist many others like the named victim, is it not their Law as well? Or do all of the un-named victims in the same position, through such branding, become amorphous - to be identified as "Sarah" no matter what their gender or background, in the same way that the Anonymous hacker group adopt a persona of Guy Fawkes?

This individualisation of the masses, the turning of the "many" into "someone", is worth keeping an eye out for.
Over the last 12 months the police have received more than 1,600 enquiries and over 900 formal applications.  At least 160 disclosures relating to child sex offences have been made, together with at least 58 made concerning other offences.
Finding information on what these "other offences" are is tricky - the Press Release doesn't mention them or give you a link to them. This Guidance Document PDF gives slightly more though:

In order to put a scheme in place that raises public confidence and increases the
protection of children the Disclosure Scheme will therefore include routes for
managed access to information regarding individuals who are not convicted child
sexual offenders but who pose a risk of harm to children. This may include: 
• persons who are convicted of other offences for example, serious domestic
• persons who are un-convicted but whom the police or any other agency holds
intelligence on indicating that they pose a risk of harm to children. 
There would not however be a presumption to disclose such information

That seems fair enough - but needs to be remembered when these "other" offences make up just over a quarter of the figures quoted with a fair bit of hand-waving.

The final (first) paragraph:
More than 200 children have been protected from potential harm during the first year of the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, it was announced today.
"Have been protected from potential harm"? How does that work? I'd rewrite this to say "may have been protected from potential harm". A double-possibility always does wonders for a sense of perspective.

Which gives us the final headline:
'Sarah's Law' protects more than 200 children in first year 
Makes more sense now, doesn't it?

(More than that picture of a snowy swing does, anyway.)

No comments: