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18 February 2011

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.

By Yo Zushi

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.

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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.