Opinion: issues around sex offenders need better political leadership

David Cameron is “appalled”. The Supreme Court has ruled that those that get put on the Sex Offenders Register for life should have a legal right of appeal to be taken off it, if they no longer present a threat to the public. Or “Paedophiles win right of appeal against offenders’ register” as I thought I heard BBC Radio 4 News say this morning. At least the BBC don’t seem to be repeating their provocative headline in their online news coverage. What are we to make of this?

There are more difficult issues for liberals. We can accept the need for a register. Many sex offenders repeat their offence. Some suffer from a kind of personality disorder that makes it unlikely that they will ever reform – or so I have been given to understand. The register may be a legitimate tactic for preventing harm. But it is an extreme one; anybody unfortunate enough to end up on the register is pretty much cut out of respectable society forever. The scope for injustice is clear. The offence that gets you on the register may not have much bearing on your risk to society; and in some cases genuine reform is no doubt a possibility. It is the nature of human activity that there will be all sorts of marginal cases. And for the police that administer the system, the incentives are skewed. Keeping somebody on the register when they shouldn’t be there will have few adverse consequences for them; letting somebody off who then offends is a career-ending move. Placing a legal right of appeal over the process is exactly what our legal system is for. In making its ruling the Supreme Court was doing exactly what it should.

But our supposedly liberal PM is appalled. Hilary Benn, on the World at One, did not offer a different view, even if he did not express himself as forcefully. This is what passes for political leadership in our country. And Mr Cameron has form. First conniving at the parliamentary opposition to the European Court ruling on prisoners’ voting rights; then his dog-whistle speech on multiculturalism; now this. No attempt to explain why the Supreme Court might have a point; no reassurance that this doesn’t mean making our streets more dangerous. Just jumping on a tabloid bandwagon before it even got rolling.

Sometimes people suggest that Christian values are a core part of Britishness. Here is an example of how un-Christian, never mind un-liberal, the country really is. Redemption? Not a chance.

Mathew Green blogs at Thinking Liberal.

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10 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Feb '11 - 6:49pm

    It’s an absolute no-brainer that there should be a right of appeal, as the court pointed out. Anybody who opposes this is effectively saying: these people should not be allowed to appeal because it might be proved that they should not be on the register, which if you think about it, is both illiberal and insane.

  • “But it is an extreme one; anybody unfortunate enough to end up on the register is pretty much cut out of respectable society forever.”

    I think someone who, for example, rapes a 6 year old child has cut themselves out of respectable society, sex offenders register or not. In any case the register isn’t public so this is a fairly irrelevant point.

    Not all people on the sex offenders register are on indefinitely. So Parliament clearly doesn’t have an issue with some sex offenders coming off the register. The reporting requirements are very limited and don’t represent any infringement on liberty as they don’t prevent any conduct – the ECHR hasn’t regarded registration as a penalty (though release on licence or other restrictions might).

    “these people should not be allowed to appeal because it might be proved that they should not be on the register,”

    They can appeal against both conviction and sentence (which indirectly impacts on Sex Offenders registration). Registration goes automatically with conviction.

  • Philip Rolle 18th Feb '11 - 12:57am

    As I understand it Hywel, the case was brought to court by an 18 year old who was put on the register for life for an offence committed when he was 11.

    Do you really think that someone who has been put on the register at age 11 should never be permitted the opportunity to demonstrate that they are reformed?

    For my own part, I think there is something very problematic about put 11 year old on the register in the first place. I believe the register ought to be reserved for those 16 and over. We should also be concerned that those convicted of minor offences with only a peripheral sexual element end up on the register for 7 years.

    I am afraid that policy in this area has for some years shown signs of being NOTW-led. Not only dog-whistle politcs, but bad and irresponsible government.

  • Is it true that there’s someone on the register for being caught in a hotel room having sex with a bike? Does that guy really represent a lasting, perminant danger to society?

  • “Do you really think that someone who has been put on the register at age 11 should never be permitted the opportunity to demonstrate that they are reformed?”

    I don’t particularly have a problem with there being such a process but considering the following
    1) The sentence would have been over 30 months for an indefinite registration (so for an 11 year old we are talking a very serious offence).
    2) 30 months is also the threshold at which an offence never becomes spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders act and always require disclosure on job applications etc. (I think this is still the case for young offenders)
    3) There are difficulties in making an assessment that a sex offender is reformed as the professionals in the field admit.
    4) Given the limited restrictions registration imposes the “balance of convenience” is clearly on the side of a registration scheme. It is a very proportionate measure.
    5) Balancing that against the public protection argument would point towards having a very high threshold for someone to come off the register – possibly something even above beyond reasonable doubt.

    I’m not sure it’s actually going to have any effect in practice.

    A 7 year order requires a sentence of 6+ months so you are talking about Crown Court offences – so pretty high up the scale of seriousness. Fines etc are a 2 year registration.

    Frankie – no idea! Though there isn’t any obvious offence that stands out for performing an act of that sort on an inanimate object in private. It doesn’t seem any different from being caught having sex with a blowup doll

  • “People get to know who’s on the register.”

    Outside of the Sarah’s law type schemes are there significant instances of this happening? Wider publicity for the register would make this a much more restrictive device and open up greater prospects of challenges (another reason why this is not a good idea but that is another debate).

    If you apply for a job (and in other circumstances) you would never be able to avoid declaring a conviction that qualified for an indefinate registration. There isn’t any call for appeals against that (partly because there already is a right of appeal I suppose). That doesn’t stop people being redeemed (eg Leslie Grantham, Ricky Tomlinson).

  • Brian Powell 18th Feb '11 - 7:56pm

    Surely someone that has been put on the sex offenders register for life, has committed either an horrendous act against another human being, or more likely, a series of despicable acts over a longer period of time.
    The register is there to protect various sections of society from these preditors, so that paedophiles find it impossible to get jobs where they are in contact with children, or where someone who preys solely on the aged, finds it impossible to get a job where they are in contact with the aged etc etc.
    The right of appeal is there already, in that the accused, when found guilty can appeal.
    Being put on the register is part of the sentence. If they don’t want to be on the register they should be able to agree to serve an indeterminate sentence, one where they are not released until they can prove they are no longer a danger to the section of society they have previously preyed upon.
    Sexual predators are wired slightly differently to what is accepted as the normal, in that they invariably say things like, ‘ they came on to me’, putting the blame for anything they have done on to the victim.
    The only reason I can see for someone being desperate enough to appeal being on the register, is that they want to work in the area their previous victims are. Retirement homes for the elderly or playgroups and schools for the young.
    I know the arguments are for the ex-prisoners ‘rights’ but, what about their victims ‘rights’. They afterall are having to live a life sentence knowing what their abuser did to them.

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Feb '11 - 4:51pm

    Surely someone that has been put on the sex offenders register for life, has committed either an horrendous act against another human being, or more likely, a series of despicable acts over a longer period of time.

    Or perhaps they’ve been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, or a poorly written piece of legislation. The whole point of appeals before a court is to determine whether or not this is actually true. There should never be anything that is not subject to appeal.

  • mark Wilson 21st Feb '11 - 7:28am

    Hywel you are getting yourself tied up in knots by trying to second guess the legislation before it is drafted. Thereby you put so many obstacles in the way that you want to frustrate the idea of any form of appeal altogether. This appears to be a general principle that the Tories in particular are having about any sort of appeals procedure.
    The Tories want to turn the clock back to a golden age before the Human Rights Act when the Judiciary did not interfere with the will of Parliament. This simply is not true. Pre Human Rights history is littered with Judicial Review cases where the crux of the Legal argument was precisely because of a Government, or even a Local Authority not allowing an appeals procedure because it wanted to introduce a blanket ban. Judges like Lord Denning though not wishing to become so were turned into celebrities because of the land mark decisions they used to make in such cases.
    Blanket bans, and the unwillingness to even “consider” appeals procedures is the sign of an uncaring and “lazy” democracy, and tries to introduce a degree of certainty in the legal process that is dangerous. Do we want to have to rely once again on the Judiciary to try to find ways from saving the populas from knee jerk decisions by parliament to issues that are distasteful, or do we live in a mature democracy where we need to spend much more time debating issues to try to seek better solutions to difficult problems.
    Hywel one final point regarding serious sexual offences committed by children. I wait to be convinced of a contrary opinion on this subject. Unless a child is genuinely evil and I would suggest this affects a very small number of children, how do parents allow their children to commit such acts in the first place. I am a genuine believer that whilst children are children parents are responsible for the sins of their children unless they have taken all reasonable steps from preventing that child from committing such sins in the first place. I say that as someone who is not a God Fearing person. Parents cannot and should not be able to abrogate their responsibility for delivering their child up to becoming an adult.

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