Why it's right to let sex offenders appeal their lifetime registration

Once we take a selective approach to human rights, they cease to mean anything at all.

Following the Supreme Court's decision in April last year to allow a teenager and a 59-year-old man to challenge the permanent inclusion of their names on the UK sex offenders register, it was announced this week that the government is reluctantly granting the right of appeal to thousands of others on the list, including convicted rapists and paedophiles. And so it should.

The "register" refers to a system of police notification that has been collating the details of all those cautioned, convicted or released from prison for sexual offences since 1997. As of October last year, more than 48,000 people were listed in England and Wales alone. Half of this figure was subject to an indefinite term of registration – a requirement for offenders who had been given jail sentences of 30 months or longer.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has insisted that the government would make the "minimum possible changes to the law" to comply with the 2010 Supreme Court ruling. The bar for appeals, she said on 16 February, would be set as "high as possible", with offenders unable to lodge an appeal until a full 15 years after their release from custody. Furthermore, she announced

The final decision of whether an offender should remain on the register will be down to the police, not the courts . . . There will be no right of appeal against the police's decision to keep an offender on the register.

These are worrying provisos, especially in the light of a statement issued by the criminologist and former police detective Mark Williams-Thomas, who worked in the field of child protection for 15 years. He said to BBC News:

[Paedophiles] are like leopards, they don't change their spots . . . What we will end up with is potentially a very dangerous situation where someone has committed offences in the past and [is] able to say they haven't committed any new offences and therefore don't present a risk. But they are a risk in the same way as an alcoholic is always an alcoholic.

If such attitudes are prevalent within the police force, as they seem to be among certain politicians (judging by their Daily Mail-fearing, panic-stricken reactions to the news), justice is unlikely to be served. Rape and paedophilia are emotive issues but, more than that, they are serious social issues that need to be addressed in a serious, socially conscious manner. The discourse around them must be free from the distorting lens of mob logic and paranoia. David Cameron, predictably "appalled", has said that the Supreme Court's ruling "seems to fly completely in the face of common sense". But this "common sense" – nothing more than a convenient and politically malleable consensus – is not the be all and end all; it certainly should not be treated as an authority.

The Supreme Court's rationale for making such an inevitably controversial ruling was grounded in solid, progressive values: the lack of the option to appeal was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Tories have long been open about their disdain for the Human Rights Act 1998, which allows Britons to claim the rights enshrined in the 1950 convention without having to go all the way to Strasbourg. Instead, the Conservatives want a bill of rights that would, according to May, ensure that "the rights of the public come before the rights of criminals".

But May's words betray the corrosive, illiberal attitude that, once a person commits a crime, he or she can no longer be counted as a member of the public. The Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone offers a similarly simplistic analysis of human rights in general: "It's being used to promote the rights of bad people over the rights of good people." His binary understanding of human nature – his childish assumption that there is a clear dividing line between "good" and "bad" – is symptomatic of the gulf that exists between reality and the Conservative understanding of society.

Take one of the cases that brought about the Supreme Court ruling discussed above. In October 2005, a teenage boy was sentenced to 30 months for raping a six-year-old child. But the rapist, known only as F, was just 11 when the crime took place. The question of whether the misdeeds of children should be treated in the same way as adult offences aside, it seems disproportionate to me that a single act committed at 11 should permanently stain F's future.

So far, his inclusion on the sex offenders register has prevented him from going on a family holiday and playing Rugby League. As he grows up, it will surely continue to disfigure his life in more invasive ways, unless his appeal is successful. Can we describe F so easily as a "bad person", as Hollobone no doubt would?

In contrast to the irrational responses of the Tories, Donald Findlater of the Lucy Faithful Foundation has stressed that we must "recognise that sex offenders cover a wide range of different kinds of behaviours and different kinds of risks . . . The fact that these people end up on the register for life because of their sentence doesn't tell me how risky they are." Britain's guilty fear of paedophilia must not be exploited to bolster the case for some absurd bill of rights. More importantly, human rights must extend to us all, from convicts and former sex offenders to law-abiding citizens. Once we take a selective approach to granting their protection, they cease to mean anything at all.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Show Hide image

France to bulldoze Calais Jungle days after child refugees arrive in the UK

The camp houses thousands. 

Refugees and migrants in Calais began queuing up for buses this morning as the French authorities plan to demolish the "Jungle" camp.

But activists fear that, unless France significantly speeds up its asylum process, the displaced people will simply move to other camps along the northern French coast.

Meanwhile, the first children of Calais brought to the UK under the Dubs Amendment arrived at the weekend.

The camp known as the Jungle, in a wasteland by the port of Calais, is actually the latest manifestation in a series of camps established since 1999, when a French reception centre became too crowded.

However, it has swelled as a result of the refugee crisis, and attempts by residents to sneak onto lorries entering the Channel Tunnel have become daily occurences. The French authorities bulldozed part of it earlier this year.

Ahead of the latest demolishment, which is expected to happen on Tuesday, Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “In February this year over 50 per cent of the camp was demolished and yet six months later the camp is bigger than it has ever been before. 

"This is clear evidence that demolitions do not act as a deterrent.  The refugees come because they have no choice."

Future refugees will go to other camps with even less facilities, she warned.

The camp houses thousands of residents, but because of the authorities' unwillingness to legitimise it, there is no official presence. Instead, the residents must rely on volunteer aid services and have little means to stop intruders entering. 

Although conditions in the camp can be dire, residents have created a high street with basic tent shops and restaurants catering to the needs of its displaced population. Many of those in the camp say they are there because they hope to be reunited with family in Britain, or they have given up on ever being processed by the French authorities. 

After the UK government was pressurised into passing the Dubs Amendment, which provides sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees, some children from the camp have arrived in the UK. The first group is reportedly mostly girls from Eritrea, who will be processed at a UK immigration centre.

One of the MPs crucial to ensuring the Dubs Amendment delivered, Stella Creasy, said many more still needed help. 

Children reunited with their families under the Dublin Convention arrived in the UK last week, although their arrival was overshadowed by a debate over age checks.  

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.