My speech at the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women with disabilities
This week I spoke in Parliament to voice my support for a change in the law which would require sex offenders to inform the police and local authorities if they were to change their name by deed poll.
The law as it currently stands puts the onus for keeping details on the sex offenders register up to date with the offender, rather than with the police and other authorities. This means a sex offender can now change their name and with little difficulty receive a passport or a driving licence with their new name. At no point are the offenders asked if they have a criminal background before being issued with a legal new identity. This practise must end.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
My huge thanks go to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for bringing this important subject to the Chamber and to national prominence—her role in this has been extraordinary. I also thank women such as Della who have waived their anonymity to expose the serious failures in the DBS system, and to ensure that the law is changed to keep people safe.
As colleagues will no doubt have seen in their constituencies, most people’s reaction to hearing about this loophole is one of utter disbelief—disbelief that simple changes, such as the deed poll asking if the applicant has a criminal record, have not been made; disbelief that a system that so many of them have encountered—anywhere from their children’s school to local sports clubs—features such a fundamental flaw; and disbelief that, despite years of warning from campaigners, the name change loophole still exists and is treated as an administrative headache, not a serious risk.
I take this opportunity to highlight a concern that the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) have already mentioned. Good intentions have not been balanced with the risk of leaving another avenue to be exploited and that is so dangerous. The DBS grants enhanced privacy rights to individuals who change their gender when changing their identity. Those are exceptional rights that are granted only to individuals from that group. The result is that identity verification is compromised, meaning that there is no guarantee that the information returned during the check and displayed on the certificate will be accurate or complete.
Those exceptional privacy rights also allow an applicant who has changed gender to request that all their previous names are withheld from the DBS certificate that is issued. That right to conceal previous identities is not given to anyone else: disclosing previous identities is a key component of safeguarding, and DBS certificates issued to all other individuals display all other names that the applicant has used.
Applicants who change their gender are also permitted to conceal their sex, and the DBS certificate issued will display their acquired gender instead. That right is not granted to any other individual: the importance of sex to safeguarding means that the sex of all other applicants is always displayed. There cannot be any exceptions in safeguarding. For the system to work, it must apply the same standards to everyone. Sadly, it is simply naive to think that loopholes in the system will not be exploited.
The system relies on the honesty of sex offenders to ensure that it functions as it should, but as the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, they are not to be trusted; they are not honest. Data obtained by the BBC from police forces highlights just how flawed this approach is. Between 2019 and 2021, more than 5,500 offences were committed by sex offenders of failing to comply with notification requirements: offences such as not telling the police they were living in a household with a child. The Disclosure and Barring Service found that 2,190 applicants for checks had criminal records and had supplied incorrect or missed out personal details such as past names or aliases. A total of 6,740 prosecutions began over the past three financial years for offences by sex offenders of breaches of a sexual harm prevention order or interim order. The system is broken and we must fix it. We have plenty of damning evidence as to why we should.
After being released from prison only three years into his six-year sentence for indecent assault, following a string of sexual assault convictions against children, Timothy Cuffy changed his name to Timothy Barnett. His new name allowed him to hide his criminal past, including from his new partner and three children. As Timothy Barnett, he answered the door to 13-year-old Sandy Hadfield, who knocked looking for her friend. After giving her vodka, he lured her to a quiet area of the woods, where he attempted to have sex with her before slitting her throat. Owing to his name change, his background went undetected, even after two encounters with Lincolnshire police and one encounter with social services. A system that means a convicted child sex offender is not identified, despite encounters with the police and social services, is one that is fundamentally broken and that led to the most tragic of outcomes in that case.
Sex offenders are not just changing their name post trial to hide their convictions; they are also changing their name at trial, or just before, to protect their name on their birth certificate. That has been highlighted in the high-profile case of Department for International Development worker Peter Davis, who became James Robert Harris before trial, allowing him to keep all records of his birth name clean should he decide to use it again.
This loophole gives sex offenders and abusers, many of whom rely on their ability to manipulate in order to carry out their crimes, an opportunity to hide their criminal history and pass the very checks that are meant to keep the most vulnerable safe. This loophole renders not only the DBS redundant but the domestic violence disclosure scheme, the sex offenders register and the child sex offender disclosure scheme. It seems absurd that we are discussing this 20 years on from the Bichard inquiry, which identified that the ability of serial predator Ian Huntley to change his name by deed poll to Ian Nixon, successfully severing the link with his existing police records, meant that no alarms were raised, and he was employed as a school caretaker. That this loophole still exists, allowing—indeed, enabling—serial predators to create new identities, is a scandal.
We are in this place to be legislators. We are in this place to make decisions and to ask the questions, “What if?” and “How?” We have to safeguard the most vulnerable people in society from these bad actors in all legislation. I pay tribute to everybody in the Gallery today and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham for her outstanding work on this issue.
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