Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
As I write, an incalculable number of children and vulnerable people are potentially at risk – learning or working in an environment with a convicted sex offender, who has slipped under the authorities’ radar. We are failing these individuals in our duty of care because of a shocking loophole in our safeguarding legislation.
Two weeks ago, I met with my Harlow constituent and CEO of The Safeguarding Alliance, Emily Konstantas. Her research into the recruitment and vetting process for those adults who work with children, young people and vulnerable adults, has uncovered that registered sex offenders are able to change their name by deed poll online, for as little as £15. In turn, sex offenders and paedophiles are able to evade and undermine fundamental safeguarding protection measures – and we simply cannot ever know exactly how many children and vulnerable people are at risk.
There are three major areas of concern.
1. Sex offenders’ automatic right to a new identity
Firstly, the process by which a convicted sex offender or criminal can change their name by deed poll is far too simple, inexpensive and unregulated. It is an automatic right – and, filling out the form online can be carried out from prison, with some online providers charging as little as £15.
At no stage in the Gov.uk website’s deed poll forms (LOCO20, 21, 25) – costing £36, incidentally – does it ask the person to declare any history of offences. Completion of this form, and payment, is all that is required to “enrol” the name change with the courts.
Once their name has been changed, sex offenders can secure official documentation in the new name, potentially allowing them to travel abroad, attend educational establishments and obtain qualifications in their new name.
Coupled with the lack of a joined-up approach between the relevant bodies (which I will come on to later), we face a terrifying and sickening fact. Our current system is allowing sex offenders to operate under a new name and successfully pass vetting processes (such as DBS checks) for qualifications and/or jobs, including those working with children or vulnerable individuals.
Evidently, the process in this country is not sufficiently robust. Why should it be so simple for a convicted criminal to just wipe away their past, possibly even before they have served their sentence? We are falling at the first hurdle, here, and the repercussions of this oversight is disastrous.
It is so unnecessary, as well. Other countries, such as Greece, require any convicted criminal to make a formal application to change their name, before a court. There is no automatic right, but it is assessed on a case-by-case basis.
This seems like a wholly reasonable way forward. The backlash, no doubt, will be one of funding. Our courts are already stretched beyond their means, I accept this, but why not make the applicant pay for the resourcing, as we do with other civil proceedings, such as a divorce or monetary claims?
2. The Sexual Offences Act 2003: an oversight?
Secondly, we have taken a wrong turn in legislation – an oversight, perhaps. Once that sex offender has changed their name by deed poll, the onus of reporting that name-change to the police, is placed on the offender.
Currently, under Section 84(1)(a) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, a convicted sex offender must report any change of name “within the period of 3 days” to the police. Failure to do so, receives a maximum penalty of “imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years”, according to Section 91(2) of the Act.
Already having the propensity to commit a crime, this approach is wholly problematic. Reporting is unreliable and our registers, such as the Child Sex Offenders Register, cannot be said to be accurate.
The Safeguarding Alliance’s FOI of police constabularies pointed to at least 1,300 paedophiles having changed their name. But, with around 45,000 known sex offenders, how many more have done so, and not reported it?
This legal loophole is allowing paedophiles to slip under the radar, “go missing”, and it undermines the effectiveness of, not only Section 84, but so many others, like Sarah’s Law, which serve to protect vulnerable people.
3. A lack of any joined-up cooperation
Thirdly, and interlinked with the other concerns, is the lack of any joined-up approach between the Deed Poll Office, with whom a name-change is conducted, the courts, with whom the name change is enrolled, HM Prison Services, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and other recruitment vetting agencies.
The impact of this can be demonstrated with the example of the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme. At present, were a member of the public wishing to find out if an individual in contact with a child has a record of sexual offence, police checks could be carried out – thanks to the incredible efforts that went into passing Sarah’s Law.
However, the lack of a joined-up approach is undermining its effectiveness. There is no guarantee that the new name being searched would bring up any links to the old name, detailing a history of criminal offences.
We need the prison services to work with the Deed Poll office and the courts, to disclose when a convicted sex offender has changed their name to the police and vetting agencies. In turn, police records would reflect any name change, restoring the intended purpose of Sarah’s Law, the DBS and other vetting procedures.
But it must be effective. Together with the Safeguarding Alliance, I am calling for a regulatory body to be set up by the Government that can oversee this more joined-up approach.
Time is of the essence
The nature and consequence of these issues mean that we cannot know how many convicted sex offenders are currently working in our schools, teaching our children. We cannot know how many are employed in our places of work.
Time is of the essence. The Government should implement interim measures.
A simple first step would be to publish guidance for any organisation or institution employing somebody who will work with children, young people or vulnerable adults, making it a compulsory best practice measure that an attested birth certificate is checked against official documentation (for example, a passport or drivers’ licence) provided as part of safeguarding and vetting procedures. Schools that The Safeguarding Alliance work with, have already started implementing this as a best practice.
There are significant loopholes in our safeguarding measures against sex offenders that are entirely preventable, but potentially disastrous. We need to work together to achieve legislative reform, before any further harm can be done.