More than 700 paedophiles have been unmasked using powers under “Sarah’s Law” since it was rolled out nationwide.
On average, about five child sex offenders a week have been identified to worried parents and guardians since the scheme was launched across the UK in April 2011.
Police forces in Scotland, England and Wales have received 4,754 applications from people who want to know if someone who has contact with children poses a risk – meaning only one in seven results in a disclosure.
Applications have fallen since the scheme was launched, from 1,944 in 2011-2 to 1,106 so far in 2013-14, while disclosures have declined from 281 in the first year to 122 in the current year.
In Scotland, 259 applications were made in 2011-12, 155 the next year and 75 so far this year, which runs until April.
A total of 49 identities have been released in Scotland.
Charities and campaigners expressed concern that only one in seven applications had resulted in a disclosure and raised questions over how well the scheme was being publicised. However, others said the figures highlighted a shift of responsibility away from the state and on to ordinary members of the public.
The Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, known as Sarah’s Law, was brought in after a campaign by Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah, eight, was murdered by convicted paedophile Roy Whiting in Sussex in 2000.
It is a watered-down version of laws in the US, under which details of where convicted paedophiles live are publicised.
Under the Home Office scheme, parents can ask police about anyone with access to their children and officers will reveal details confidentially if they think it is in the child’s interests.
Donald Findlater, of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity that works with sex abusers as well as victims, said: “Given the apparent drop in applications since the start of the scheme, albeit small, we have some concern that people may not know the scheme is available to them. We would like to see continued public awareness and publicity, whether by local forces or nationally by the Home Office.
“The conversion rate of one in seven applications resulting in a disclosure is encouraging. It shows that adults can and do notice worrying behaviour in others around them – a key factor in keeping children safe.”
Christopher Stacey, director of services at reformed offenders charity Unlock, said: “It is important to strike the right balance between the need to protect the public, and enabling people who have served their sentence and rehabilitated themselves to move on positively with their lives.
“There already exists a detailed framework in place which is designed to enable the police, probation services and other agencies to share information with members of the public where there is a safeguarding concern. As a result, it is unclear what value this scheme is adding.”
Jon Brown, of the NSPCC, said: “Sarah’s Law is not a silver bullet to end child abuse and giving the public information about where sex offenders live is just one part of the jigsaw.
“It’s vital sex offenders serve long prison sentences. But all prisoners are released eventually so sex offenders must be thoroughly risk assessed and then monitored closely by the authorities for a long time.”
He warned: “Informing the public of their whereabouts has to be done properly, professionally and judged on a case-by-case basis.
“Forcing a child abuser underground because of a fear of vigilante attacks won’t make children safer, as the authorities will lose track of them.”
YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON DISCLOSURE RULES
What is the background to the scheme?
It was developed in consultation with Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah was murdered by a convicted paedophile.
How does it work?
Anyone who wants to find out if someone in contact with a child has a record of child sexual offences can use the scheme. Police forces process the application and disclosure is not guaranteed. However, an applicant can trigger an investigation to find out if a person has a known history even if there are no firm grounds for suspicion.
Where is the scheme available?
It is available across Scotland, England and Wales.
Who will the information be disclosed to?
It will be provided only to the person making the inquiry. They must agree to keep it confidential.
Were there any concerns?
There have been fears the scheme could drive child sex offenders underground, or cause vigilante-style attacks. A US law, which allows much more disclosure, including the publication of names, addresses and pictures in some states, has experienced such problems.