Government ministers are bracing themselves for a storm of protest today, as the Home Secretary announced plans in the Commons to grant sex Offenders the right to appeal against a continued obligation to notify the authorities of their whereabouts.
This follows a case in the UK Supreme Court last year in which two convicted sex offenders – a teenager convicted of rape and a 59-year-old man guilty of indecent assault – challenged the current system on the grounds that their permanent inclusion on the Sex Offenders' Register, with no chance of a review, was a disproportionate interference in their family lives.
In practice, however, it is unlikely that this ruling will make a great deal of difference – and will not in any way affect other measures already in place, particularly in respect of the rehabilitation of offenders, or vetting and barring.
Addressing the Commons this lunchtime, Home Secretary Theresa May said she was "disappointed and appalled by this ruling" and that "this places the rights of sex offenders above those of the rights of the public, but government has no choice".
Explaining that the government will do the minimum to comply, she explained that sex offenders will automatically come off the register. The Scottish government has already given sex offenders the right to automatic appeal after 15 years – and what she intends now to enact will be tougher.
Offenders will have no automatic right to appeal, and will not be able to appeal anyway until 15 years after leaving custody. All relevant agencies will be consulted, and the final decision left to the police, not courts, as in Scotland: the police are best able to determine whether an individual constitutes a risk, she said.
In addition, she intends to move to close four existing loopholes in the existing law, making any overseas travel subject to notification, requiring sex offenders to notify authorities if they share a a household with any child under 18, and further tightening the rules in respect of those with no fixed abode and making it harder to evade the Sex Offenders' Register where individuals change their name by deed poll ...
More significantly, she signified further disapproval with human rights laws in general by telegraphing the government’s intention to bring forward a British Bill of Rights shortly – which will assert that the rights of citizens come before those of criminals.
Drawing a clear line between government action on this issue and that in respect of other issues such as DNA retention, the home secretary was keen to stress that in the latter case the government was dealing with the rights of innocent people: in this instance, offenders had, by definition, been found guilty of a serious crime, she said.
Does this make much difference? The Sex Offenders' Register is, in fact, shorthand for a process of notification whereby those convicted of serious crimes of a sexual nature must regularly notify authorities of their whereabouts. It does not remove details of such convictions from any existing database and, as a landmark court case in 2008 made clear: even where convictions were now "spent", police may retain details of crimes within their systems if they believe the information is relevant.
Details of crimes committed will also continue to be provided to other systems, such as the Vetting and Barring System, which ultimately governs whether individuals can work with children and vulnerable adults.
Responding to last year’s appeal, Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, was reported by the BBC as saying: "It is obvious that there must be some circumstances in which an appropriate tribunal could reliably conclude that the risk of an individual carrying out a further sexual offence can be discounted to the extent that continuance of notification requirements is unjustified." ®