Time to tear up the Sex Offenders Register?

The fears stoked by the register are a bigger problem than most of the people on it.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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British government ministers are under pressure following revelations that a man listed on the Sex Offenders Register had been given the all-clear to work as a schoolteacher.

Paul Reeve, a physical education teacher, applied for a post at a school in Norwich, England. He had previously received a police caution for accessing child pornography. The fact that he only received a caution suggests his offence was not a serious one; otherwise he would have been prosecuted and punished in court. However, a caution is an admission of guilt and he was placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

When he applied for the teaching job, he had to request clearance to work from the Department for Education and Skills. Reeve’s case was one in which the decision over whether to place him on ‘List 99′, the list of those banned from teaching, was at the discretion of a minister. In this case, the decision was taken by Kim Howells, minister for higher education at the time. After reading through Reeve’s file and being assured that he did not represent a threat to children, Howells decided Reeve should not be placed on the list.

Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, has stated that there are about 10 such cases of sex offenders working in schools. This has caused uproar, with accusations that children are being placed at risk. But questions should be asked, not so much about Kelly resigning, but about the wisdom of having a Sex Offenders Register at all.

The Sex Offenders Act 1997 (since re-enacted as the Sexual Offences Act 2003) introduced the register and demanded that anyone convicted of a range of sexual offences notify the police whenever their address or other personal circumstances change. The length of time someone remains on the register is dependent on the offence committed, ranging from five years to life.

Thus, someone can remain on the register long after any punishment for their crime has been served. In cases like Reeve’s, they can be placed on the register even if no punishment was deemed necessary. Moreover, while the register is usually justified on the basis of monitoring high-risk child sex abusers, the register is so sweeping that essentially any sex-related offence is covered.

For example, there are a number of cases involving teachers, male and female, having a sexual relationship with a pupil.

  • David Wootton, a 36-year-old teacher from Kent, was convicted in April 2005 of engaging in sexual activity while in a position of trust. He had sex with two pupils, aged 15 and 16. On top of being jailed for two-and-a-half years, he was also placed on the Sex Offenders Register for life.
  • In June 2005, Nicola Prentice, a 25-year-old teacher from Yorkshire was convicted of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy. She was given a 12-month suspended sentence, and placed on the register for 10 years.
  • In August, Hannah Grice, a 32-year-old married teacher from Staffordshire was convicted after having sex with a boy when he was 14 and 15. She was sentenced to 15 months in prison and also placed on the register for 10 years.

In most of these cases, the parties involved regarded themselves as being in a relationship. There is no suggestion of forced sex. While it is quite clear that these people have failed in their responsibilities and almost certainly should not be allowed to teach again, and their actions may even warrant prosecution, it is far from clear that they pose a general threat to children such that they should have to be monitored by the police for years to come.

Even more bizarre is the case of a bus driver called Ayrton Senna. Originally called John Campbell, he had changed his name to that of the late motor-racing champion. In September 2005, the 37-year-old was convicted of making obscene gestures to two teenage girls on the back seat of the bus in front of the one he was driving. He was placed on probation and put on the register.

A final example is the case of the Stoke-on-Trent councillor, with the slightly unfortunate name Lee Wanger, convicted in January 2005 of logging-on to a child pornography website. However, he apparently didn’t do anything while he was there as no images where found on his computer. Nonetheless, he was fined £250 and placed on the register for five years.

While there is certainly an argument that certain people who are assessed as representing an ongoing threat after their release should be monitored, the cases above all involve people who will have criminal records for the next few years as a result of their actions. What purpose is served by placing them on a register, too?

This law is directed not at the offence but at the offender. What the register succeeds in doing is giving official approval to the notion that sexual offenders are a peculiar breed of criminal who are far more likely to strike again – even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

This is bad news for us all. Previously, the assumption was that people would reform given an opportunity to do so. Once they had served their punishment, they would be regarded as having ‘paid their debt to society’ and could move on. Even their criminal record could be expunged after a few years if they did not commit further offences, allowing them to take part fully in society again on the same basis as someone who had never committed a crime.

The new approach is akin to the notion of original sin. Rather than assume that people are basically good but in particular circumstances let themselves down, now we are led to believe that for thousands of people there is a constant struggle to prevent their real, malevolent desires from expressing themselves – a situation that in reality applies, at most, to a handful of disturbed individuals.

In fact, the very existence of such a register tends to stoke fears even further. Firstly, it implies that there are thousands of dangerous sexual predators out there. Secondly, the fact that the register can only be accessed by limited numbers of people suggests the government is putting the rest of us at risk by refusing to disclose where ‘the perverts’ live. No wonder there are constant calls for laws that would allow public disclosure of their names.

In this whole affair, the one thing that is truly perverse is that the element of the system that does allow cases to be examined on their own merits (the decision to put someone on List 99) is derided. Instead, a register that lumps together a wide variety of individuals, most of whom do not pose an ongoing threat, is regarded as authoritative. In the midst of the hysteria about child abuse we have descended into a situation where simply being on the list means people are regarded as tainted.

Rather than obsessing over what Kelly and Howells did or did not do, we should question the existence of the Sex Offenders Register. Having said that, it is hard to have any sympathy for ministers who have been all too happy to reinforce the paedophile panic.

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Topics Politics


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