Hundreds of sex offenders in Greater Manchester have failed to correctly register with the police as their sentences require them to do in a 12-month period and some have gone missing completely, data shows.
The BBC Shared Data Unit has shown over a three-year period more than 700 criminals who have committed sexual offences have evaded the police’s attention, something which has caused campaigners alarm.
The data responses by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) are incomplete but they do show the scale of the problems forces face in tracking those who have committed these kinds of crimes and are then released with conditions back into the community. Campaigners say many offenders are simply able to slide off the police’s radar by changing their names and want this banned. The Home Office has conducted internal reviews of the matter but the findings have not been published.
GMP said it had a robust system in place for dealing with the management of sex offenders, while acknowledging there had previously been issues with this, and the safety of the public was its top priority. The force also questioned the assumption that offenders might change their names solely to avoid detection and monitoring by the authorities.
What does the data show for Greater Manchester Police?
The BBC Shared Data Unit asked police forces across the country questions under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act about sex offenders failing to comply with their notification requirements between 2019-20 and 2022-23.
Currently, when someone is added to the Sex Offenders’ Register, they are required to provide certain personal details to the police, including their name and any aliases they have been known by, their current address and passport details. They have to visit a police station annually to comply with notification requirements, and to inform the authorities of any change to personal details. When this information changes the police must be notified within three days or offenders can face up to five years in prison.
GMP was unable to provide any data responses for years other than 2022-23. The force said that in November 2022 there were 3,744 registered sex offenders (RSOs) living in Greater Manchester and there had been 461 crimes of failing to comply with registration requirements within a 12-month period.
The force also provided a snapshot for 13 December 2022 on how many RSOs were missing with their whereabouts unknown. The figure for this was 29.
GMP said they conducted home visits to confirm the offenders were residing where they said they would be, but there was no specific timeframe for this and the frequency of calls would be decided according to the risk the offender manager decided they posed. This would be decided by looking at the offender management plan.
The police said that failure to comply with registration requirements would result in that person being classed as wanted and officers would be given information to pursue and arrest them.
A GMP spokesperson said: “Greater Manchester Police now has a robust system in place to monitor registered sex offenders with a new governance structure, ensuring quality offender management is delivered and the public are protected.
“This follows some legacy issues and is in-line with the continuous improvements the force is making in all areas to protect and serve the public of Greater Manchester.
“In our experience registered sex offenders often don’t change their name with the sole purpose to avoid management, and instead do so due to a number of factors, including identifying as a gender that differs from that at birth.
“GMP currently actively manages over 3,000 registered sex offenders in the community and the safety of the public is paramount.”
What did the BBC Shared Data Unit investigation find nationally?
The BBC Shared Data Unit’s FOI requests discovered that in a three-year period 729 sex offenders had slipped off the radar of the police forces that were supposed to be monitoring them and had either gone missing or were wanted for arrest.
There have been 5,518 offences committed by registered sex offenders of failing to comply with notification requirements in the past three financial years. Those offences can include, but are not limited to, not notifying police of a name change or intention to travel abroad or within the UK and not notifying police of a change of address or circumstances such as beginning to live in a household with a child under the age of 18.
In addition, nearly 6,750 prosecutions have begun for offences by registered sex offenders of breaches of a sexual harm prevention order, interim order or foreign travel order in England and Wales in the same time period.
In Greater Manchester the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said there had been 155 offences charged under the law related to complying with sexual harm-related orders which had reached a first hearing at a magistrates’ court in 2021-22. There were 115 such cases in 2020-21 and 164 in 2019-20.
What has been the response to these findings?
Critics say the current law around offender registration is too easy to bypass because it places the onus on offenders to report changes in their circumstances. Campaigners have suggested one way that criminals do this is simply by changing their names.
The BBC Shared Data Unit also asked questions about this as part of its investigation. It found there had been more than 2,000 criminal records checks carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) in the past three financial years which flagged up both that the applicants had cautions or convictions and that they had supplied incorrect or missed out personal details such as past names or aliases.
In Greater Manchester there were 175 such cases where discrepancies were identified between 2019-20 and 2021-22. There were 80 in 2019-20, 54 in 2020-21 and 41 in 2021-22. However, it was pointed out that it was not possible to identify exactly what the missing information was, though missing names or names not matching could be one of the reasons it was flagged.
Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham where at least 1,400 children were the victims of abuse between 1997 and 2013, previously told Parliament registered sex offenders were changing their names then applying for fresh identity documents, allowing them to secure jobs working with children.
Ms Champion said: "The scale of sex offenders going off the radar chills me as I believe it is immense. It’s highly likely these figures only show the tip of the iceberg.
“The fact we know at least 721 sex offenders have gone missing within the last three years demonstrates it’s highly likely many more of them breached their notification requirements without getting caught, making them an active risk to the public.
"Clearly, the current system of notification isn’t working. The sheer scale of breaches and sex offenders going missing is a scandal, but one the public don’t know about.
“Sex offenders will use any loophole to reoffend – and this is a gaping one. Whilst it is reassuring that over 2,000 DBS checks have flagged incorrect information, it worries me that the offenders have got that far to submit what they felt were ‘clean’ applications. The police and probation are often doing good work to manage sex offenders, but we need to tighten the system to stop so many slipping through the gaps.”
Campaigning group The Safeguarding Alliance previously raised the alarm about the scale of this issue in 2019 and is calling for judges to be able to ban sex offenders from changing their names while putting them on the register.
The campaign group’s chief executive officer Emily Konstantas said: “I think sex offenders’ name changes are actually an epidemic. I think the problem is so big, people don’t know what to do.
“We need to have a system in place that does not rely on sex offenders’ honesty in self-reporting. My biggest concern is how many have not notified and not been caught.
“There’s no room for error on this. We’re talking about people being at risk of being abused sexually; it’s one of the most heinous crimes there is. Some sex offenders are meant to be monitored by police because they are deemed a risk to society. They shouldn’t be able to change their name - it’s putting children and adults at risk.”
What have the authorities said in response?
Cumbria Constabulary’s Chief Constable Michelle Skeer, national lead for the management of sex offenders, said anyone could change their name but there were "additional legislative obligations" for sex offenders, which were monitored closely.
The Home Office says it has "some of the toughest powers in the world to deal with sex offenders".
The former chief of Derbyshire police, Mick Creedon, was appointed in March 2022 by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel to review the police’s management of registered sex offenders.
A separate internal review was also carried out into the scale and nature of offenders changing their name. The department said ministers were considering both reports but had not published the findings.
A Home Office spokesperson said it had also strengthened its regime for managing offenders through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
The act made it easier to impose restrictions via civil orders called Sexual Harm Prevention Orders for anyone convicted or cautioned for a sexual or violent offence.
Courts can also impose Sexual Risk Orders which can be applied to any individual shown to pose a risk of sexual harm in the UK or abroad.