Hundreds of registered sex offenders have fallen off police radars over the last three years, with campaigners warning many are using a loophole in the law to legally change names and hide from authorities.
In the past three years, 729 registered sex offenders were either recorded missing by police or wanted for arrest. Not all police forces were able to provide data, so the figures will likely be higher. In the same period, 1,457 sex offenders told police they had legally changed names, according to data gathered through Freedom of Information requests by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit.
Sex offenders are legally allowed to change name but the onus is on them to notify police, something abuse survivors, campaigners and MPs from across the political spectrum are calling for an end to.
Sarah Champion who is the Labour MP for Rotherham, where at least 1,400 children were the victims of abuse between 1997 and 2013, previously told Parliament that registered sex offenders were changing their names, which costs less than £50, then applying for new identity documents which would allow them to work with children.
Commenting on the BBC’s figures, Champion said: “The scale of sex offenders going off the radar chills me as I believe it is immense. Clearly, the current system of notification isn’t working. The sheer scale of breaches and sex offenders going missing is a scandal, but one the public don’t know about."
There are at least 66,139 registered sex offenders living in the UK. The Home Office said the UK has some of the toughest powers in the world to deal with offenders.
What’s the current law?
The current law states that if someone is added to the Sex Offenders Register, they are required to provide certain personal details to the police, including their name and any aliases, their current address and passport details.
If any of these personal details change, police must be informed within three days and failure to do so can result in a prison sentence. Police must also be alerted if they intend to travel abroad or if they are living in a household with a child under the age of 18. But the BBC’s investigation found 5,518 offences had been committed by registered sex offenders of failing to comply with such requirements.
‘A system putting children and adults at risk’
Campaign group the Safeguarding Alliance has been calling for “Della’s Law”, a legal change which would allow judges the power to ban sex offenders from changing their names while putting them on the sex offenders register.
The campaign is named after Della Wright who was six years old when she was sexually abused. The man who abused her had been able to reoffend after changing his identity. Ms Wright has waived her right to anonymity to support the campaign.
Emily Konstantas, chief executive officer, said the current system was too trusting: “We’re led to believe in a Sex Offenders Register that’s there to protect society but it’s not a register as such, it’s a notification system. If one doesn’t report themselves to the police, how can the police do something about someone they don’t know about?
“There’s no room for error on this. We’re talking about people being at risk of being abused sexually; it’s one of the most heinous crimes there is. Some sex offenders are meant to be monitored by police because they are deemed a risk to society. They shouldn’t be able to change their name - it’s putting children and adults at risk.”
‘Hiding from a criminal past’
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Public protection is a priority for this government and we have some of the toughest powers in the world to deal with sex offenders.
“To ensure registered sex offenders cannot hide their criminal past, they must notify police of their personal details every year and whenever they change – this includes any name changes. Failure to comply, including providing false information, is a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
“We have further strengthened the regime for managing registered sex offenders and those who pose a risk through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.”
Elsewhere in the UK, politicians are also calling for legal reform. Scottish Conservative shadow community safety minister Russell Findlay MSP, requested legal changes in the Scottish Parliament to prevent sex offenders changing their names, while Denis Naughten, Independent TD, raised concerns with Northern Ireland Justice Minister Helen McEntee during a committee last year.