Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 2, page 2, line 25, at end insert—
“(3A) The victims’ code must—
(a) require criminal justice bodies to take all reasonable steps to identify and record any change of name by a perpetrator, and
(b) require criminal justice bodies to inform a relevant victim when a perpetrator changes their name.
(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A)—
‘perpetrator’ means a person whose conduct or alleged conduct results in another person being a victim as defined by section 1 of this Act;
‘relevant victim’ means a person who becomes a victim as a result of the perpetrator’s conduct.”
This amendment would require criminal justice bodies to monitor name changes of perpetrators and inform victims of any name changes.
The amendment is about sex offenders who are changing their names to avoid detection. As of yesterday, it had been signed by 24 MPs from five different parties, including a former Home Secretary. I hope hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, will take on board the severity of the consequences of this practice, which is happening daily across the country.
For nearly three years, I have been raising this serious safeguarding loophole. Registered sex offenders are changing their names without the knowledge of the police, and I will evidence that as I go on. Unless that loophole is closed, it will continue to make complete nonsense of the schemes on which the public rely to detect offenders: the sex offenders register, the child sex offender disclosure scheme, the domestic violence disclosure scheme and the Disclosure and Barring Service. Of course, a number of these schemes are named for victims and survivors. The domestic violence disclosure scheme is also known as Clare’s law—it enables someone to check whether their new partner has a history of domestic violence offences—and the child sex offender disclosure scheme is also known as Sarah’s law. All these schemes become redundant if the offender changes their name.
It is breaking the law for registered sex offenders to change their name. They are meant to notify the police within three days of doing so. That is very clear, but it relies on a registered sex offender—someone who, by their very nature, looks for vulnerabilities in systems that they can exploit—to do the right, honourable and legal thing and to tell the police that they have changed their name. I say to hon. Members that that is as likely to happen as—well, I don’t know, but something that is very, very unlikely to happen. And the evidence backs that up.
For those three years, I have been raising this issue with Ministers in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. So far, as a consequence of that, there have been two reviews, but it has been decided that they should be internal. I understand the reasons for that—we do not want to give sex offenders a handbook on how to do these things—but nothing has been published about any changes that have happened as a consequence of those reviews, and we should all be deeply concerned about that. If the Minister can tell me today that changes have been put in place, and it is just that we have not been notified, I will be very comfortable with that and very reassured; I will say that the Minister is doing his job by ensuring that these things happen. So I look forward to his reply.
The issue is not just sex offenders changing their name; they are also meant to notify changes of address—changes of personal details. These are referred to as notification requirements. The issue currently is that, when they do not inform the police about changing their name, they literally disappear. I raised this loophole with my former district commander, and he did not even know about it. He said to me, “Sarah, how am I meant to catch someone who has breached their notification requirements, when I don’t know who they are?” That is a very good point. This is not “Luther”—or whatever other detective show it is that we watch—where there is this great, amazing database and all these CCTV images, and it is possible to track all these thousands of people. It just does not work like that. We rely on people doing the right thing, but unfortunately sex offenders rarely do.
In response to my written parliamentary questions, the Home Office confirmed that more than 16,000 offenders were charged with breach of their notification requirements between 2015 and 2020—in that five-year period, 16,000 were charged. But, again, we have to know who they are to be able to charge them, so the true scale will be much bigger. The Safeguarding Alliance freedom of information request to the Crown Prosecution Service found that over 11,500 registered sex offenders were prosecuted for failing to notify changes of information between 2019 and 2022. I need to say, for transparency, that the breach could have been for a change of name or other details—for example, a change of address—but it is still concerning that they are not notifying these things.
Although it is clear that offenders are changing their names and not disclosing their new name to the police, the exact scale remains impossible to capture. New data secured by the BBC a couple of months ago demonstrates the same ongoing pattern, allowing offenders to slip through the cracks. Over 700 registered sex offenders have gone missing in the last three years. It is highly likely that they breached their notification requirements without getting caught, making them an active risk to the public. I am sorry, but there is not the rehabilitation that we need for sex offenders, and they continue their pattern of behaviour. However, only 31 of the 45 police forces responded to the BBC FOIs, so the scale will be much bigger than we know.
Della Wright is an ambassador for the Safeguarding Alliance and a survivor of child sexual abuse. I have worked with Della and the Safeguarding Alliance throughout, on both this amendment and raising the risks, and I am incredibly grateful to them for all the help and support they have given. Della has bravely chosen to speak out and tell her story in support of so many other victims affected by this serious safeguarding loophole. I pay huge credit to her; her tenacious campaigning is what brought this issue to public attention and, initially, to me.
When Della was a child, a man came to live in her home, becoming one of her primary carers and repeatedly sexually abusing her. Years later, when Della reported the abuse, her abuser was already known to the police; he had committed many further sexual offences against many more children. During that time, Della was made aware that his name had changed. He changed his name at least five times, enabling him to relocate under the radar and to evade justice.
When Della’s case was finally brought to court, her abuser had once again changed his name—this was between being charged and appearing in court for the plea hearing. That is not uncommon, and it slows down the whole court process, because the court papers need to be issued in the new name. That places additional distress on the victim and makes a complete mockery of the court justice system. Just think how tightly packed the court system is; on the day, the court will have to pull the case and try to find another spot, which inevitably puts trauma on the victim. The victim will have been working for months with their independent domestic violence adviser or independent sexual violence adviser, friends and family to get them to a point where they can be a witness, and then, on the day, the case gets dropped because someone can change their name.
At this point, let me just pause and say that, by the time I finish this speech, any hon. Members here could have changed their name legally. It can be done online for free. There is an enrolled and an unenrolled deed poll. I think the enrolled is £45, and it then gets published. I completely understand why a victim of domestic violence or stalking might not want to go on that. There is also the unenrolled, where it costs on average about £10—but it can be done for free—to change a name.
Sadly, Della’s case is far from unique, and I imagine that a number of Members here will have had survivors in their constituency come to them. There are survivors who have discovered that their abusers have reoffended, but it is discovered that they are using a different name only once they have been caught. My amendment would require criminal justice agencies to actively monitor name changes by perpetrators, including before their trial, so that victims can remain informed. That could prevent a lot of trauma for victims, help to reduce the number of offenders going missing and help us to put in the associated safeguarding.
I thank the Clerks for their help in drafting this amendment. Up to this point, I have focused on the people who are already on the registered sex offenders list; they are a known risk to us. However, police forces around the country have alerted me to the common practice of offenders of changing their name at the point of, or just before, being charged. They do that to keep their birth name clean so that if they are charged or convicted under the new name, at the end of the process they can revert to their original name and have a clean record. I did not realise that that was a common thing. There is also the issue of people with dual nationality who do that. If they hand over their passport as a condition of pre-charge bail, they will still have their original passport in their original name. Such a practice is a real, live risk.
When someone is investigated before they are charged, we have pre-charge bail conditions. When someone is accused of such grievous offences, which they are likely to continue, I do not think it is in any way a violation of their human rights—or whatever the argument is that is going to be put—if one of those pre-charge bail conditions is that they cannot change their name. Obviously, if the investigation goes forward and the charges are dropped, those conditions would be dropped. Once that person is off the sex offenders register, that requirement would be dropped. Given the gravity of the offences that they are accused of and the likelihood of their perpetuating them, that is something we should take seriously to protect everyone.
I have spoken a lot about sex offenders, but the amendment could, at the Minister’s discretion, cover other offenders too. One notable example I am sure everybody is familiar with is Colin Pitchfork—a rapist and murderer who changed his name. I raise this example to show that, although we might be familiar with a case, we might not know about someone changing their name. When we look at local papers, it is quite common to see “aka” and that people are changing their names on a regular basis.
Families deserve to know if their relative’s murderer is living under a new name, because that at least guards against the trauma of relatives not knowing that that person has been released, for example. Sadly, in the cases I know, Facebook seems to be the most common way that people find out about this.
I think the reason that Ministers have not acted on this issue to date is not that they do not understand the risks—when I have raised it with them, they have all understood the risks—but because it goes into the “too difficult” drawer. I get that; this is messy, and there are likely to be some associated costs. So I have tried to find a solution for the Minister.