Heather Brooke: The sex offenders register should be made public

Secrecy has created a list open to abuse by those who control it: the police and politicians
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After a week of sustained pressure, ministers have finally admitted that politicians may not be the best authority for deciding inclusion on the List 99 register of those banned from working in education. They concede that an outside body should make such decisions. I have just the thing and it won't cost a penny. The outside body is already in existence - it is the general public.

Revelations that Ruth Kelly's department cleared the Norfolk PE teacher Paul Reeve and William Gibson, 59, to work as teachers even though they were on the sex offenders register has once again laid bare the inadequacies of criminal records checks. What is most frightening is that Ms Kelly cannot provide an account of how many known sex offenders are working in schools. This is because the system, like so much of current policy, is chaotic, arbitrary and controlled by the patronage of politicians.

Firstly, there is the chaos of the register itself. Individual police forces maintain and feed information into the main sex offenders register, while List 99 is a blacklist, drawn up by politicians at the Department for Education and Skills. Ms Kelly revealed last week that there are currently seven such blacklists barring people from working with children and vulnerable adults. Surely these lists would be more effective (both in terms of cost and operational effectiveness) if they were unified. If the lists were public, then such needless duplication and cost-wasting would have been exposed years ago.

Keeping the lists secret from the public makes them less effective in other ways. The public are prevented from having a rational and informed discussion on the structure and composition of the sex offenders register because we have no way of knowing who is on the list or why. Secrecy has created a register that has no consistency and is open to abuse by those who control the list, namely the police and politicians.

Reeve was put on the sex offenders register after police cautioned him for accessing child pornography over the internet. Gibson had a relationship with a 15-year-old pupil in 1980 and as a result was convicted of indecent assault of a minor. Many people, such as Reeve, are on the list even though they have not been charged or found guilty of any crime. Should this be so?

It's true that sexual crimes are difficult to prosecute, evidenced by the fact that the Soham murderer Ian Huntley did not have criminal convictions, although police were aware he was a danger to young girls. But this points out the desperate need to reform the criminal justice system in favour of the victims of sexual crime, not an opportunity to blacklist people who are innocent in law. Currently, we have no idea what sort of information leads to being placed on the sex offenders register.

In the United States, sex offenders registers have been public for almost a decade, and transparency has ensured a wide and informed debate about the dangers sex offenders pose to society and the rights and wrongs of publishing their details.

While British politicians struggle over how to create a coherent list with gradations of risk, the Americans already have a number of systems in place handling widespread publication. In my former home state of Washington, the list is divided into three categories of sex offenders, from 1 (those posing the least threat) to 3 (high risk). Each level places varying requirements on the offenders. The lowest-risk offenders are not published on the internet, while files on category 2 and 3 offenders are published complete with photograph, name, list of offences, address and maps showing proximity to schools.

Of course, no discussion about publishing a sex offenders register is complete without cries that it will lead to vigilantism. The News of the World's campaign in 2000 is often cited for prompting an attack on a paediatrician. Yet people are attacked every day, and the motivations behind such attacks are numerous. Is it sensible to put innocent people in danger's way just because of the irrational, and criminal, behaviour of a minuscule minority?

In the US, it is illegal to use information from the sex offender databases to commit a crime or harass an offender or his family. In California if that crime is a misdemeanour, fines are $10,000-$50,000 (£5,630-£28,140); and if a felony, a five-year prison term is added to any other punishment. Such harsh penalties and efficient enforcement mean that vigilantism is rare.

Vigilantism is the product not of open records but of a breakdown in trust between the public and the criminal justice system. That is why we see vigilantism in countries where the rule of law has broken down and people feel the need to take matters into their own hands. Rather than closing the system even more, the way to solve this problem is to make the courts and court records more transparent, so the people can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears exactly how justice is being done. Only then will we feel confident that the system is working properly and justly.

In the end it comes down to trust. Do we trust the state or ourselves with this information? It is unreasonable to expect the police to monitor and keep tabs on all suspicious people. We, the people, are much better placed to protect our own children.