On 2 March 2023, following years of campaigning by survivors of abuse, The Safeguarding Alliance and other organisations, Sarah Champion MP led the debate on the Sexual Offences (Prohibition of Name Change) Bill in parliament.
There are currently 67,000 registered sex offenders living in the UK. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, all registered sex offenders are legally required to notify the police of any name changes and any change of address. The onus is on the offender to register any changes with the police within three days and failure to do so can result in a prison sentence of up to five years. Because the onus is on the offender to make the notification, it has led to serious safeguarding concerns as hundreds of sex offenders have effectively gone missing over the last few years.
In April 2021, The Safeguarding Alliance discovered 16,000 offenders breached notification in the five years prior. Between 2017 and 2020, 905 offenders went missing and only recently the BBC revealed that over 700 offenders went missing between 2019 and 2021. This led to an independent review that took place last year to assess the scale of this issue; however, no report has been made public.
If an offender is able to change their name, they can obtain new means of identification, such as a new passport and driving licence, which will allow them to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check under that new name. A DBS check aids an organisation when recruiting staff and is an important aspect of safeguarding. The loophole of offenders being able to change their names with ease means it is possible for a previous offender to obtain a job in a position of trust working with vulnerable children and adults. Parliament heard of a number of cases whereby an offender had taken this course of action without notifying the police and other authorities before committing further crimes under their new identity. The most notable case, albeit now 20 years ago, is that of Ian Huntley.
The current process relies on a system whereby an offender is required to be honest, when in reality the system is being exploited and breached, which has a devastating impact on victims, survivors and other vulnerable children and adults.
In February 2023, the government announced additional measures to tackle domestic violence. Starting immediately, those perpetrators who receive custodial sentences of 12 months or more for coercive and controlling behaviours will now be added to the sex offender register. Schemes such as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (Clare’s Law) and the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme (Sarah’s Law) enable the police to reveal information about any history of violence or abuse a person may have. The current ability of offenders to change their name means these schemes will have difficulty in tracking abusers, which can lead to offenders being undetected.
The following suggestions have been proposed in an attempt to close this loophole:
It appears that this bill gathered significant interest, given the short time between the first and second reading, and gained much support from other MPs. It remains to be seen if the proposed changes are accepted in full or part.
The second reading in respect of this bill will be heard on 24 March 2023.
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