Three-quarters of sex offenders who applied to be removed from the sex offenders register last year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had their requests approved, according to new figures exclusively obtained by Sky News.

In four areas the success rate was 100%.

Offenders have had the right to apply for a review after 15 years on the register since 2012.

But now a Dorset woman who was abused as a child is petitioning MPs to change the law – after she discovered her abuser had been removed from the register, 21 years after his conviction.

“When I was 11 I liked to dance, I liked to pretend I was Mariah Carey with my hairbrush in the mirror,” says Laura Stewart, who has waived her right to anonymity to campaign for change.

Showing me a smiling photograph of herself at that age, she adds: “It was a carefree childhood then.”

But shortly afterwards the abuse started.

“I remember the first weekend I stayed at his,” she says. “I felt uncomfortable straight away. I couldn’t explain it being so young.

“But that night – he touched me for the first time. And that continued and progressively got more and more over the course of five and a half to six years.

“It ended when I left home at 16.”

Two years later she went to the police.

Her abuser was jailed in 2002 thanks to the evidence she gave in court – and sentenced to life on the sex offenders register.

But earlier this year Laura, who’s now 40, found out he’d been removed.

The discovery made her feel sick.

“I felt frightened. I felt frightened for my children and for myself,” she says. “There’s nothing to stop him pitching up next door. It’s horrifying.”

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Families of sex offenders in ‘trauma’

She adds: “Where is the protection? Where is the justice? Where is the safety that we were told we would have when we were brave enough to give the evidence and commit these offenders to their sentences?

“I feel let down. All those police promises – stand up, give evidence, we’ll protect you – have been trampled on.”

Laura only discovered what had happened after she saw her abuser in the local area and contacted Dorset Police herself.

“I’ve seen him a few times,” she says. “The first time, I was with my two young daughters in a shopping centre, and he was in the store that we were in. And I panicked, and there was a wave of just complete fear.

“The next time I was out at a farm just picking fruit and I saw him laughing and joking.”

Laura is now petitioning parliament to ban sex offenders sentenced to life on the register from applying for removal.

Signing the sex offenders register means regularly updating the police about your address, bank details, travel plans and any children you live with.

The right to appeal 15 years after release from custody was introduced in 2012 following a Supreme Court ruling that the lack of such a mechanism breached the European Convention on Human Rights – in particular the right to privacy.

‘Disappointed and appalled’

The then home secretary, Theresa May, said the government was “disappointed and appalled” by the ruling, but told MPs there was no possibility of appeal.

Instead, she promised to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights, to assert “that it is parliament that makes our laws, not the courts”.

Plans for a British Bill of Rights have been dropped by the current administration.

Mrs May also claimed the “bar” for removal from the sex offenders’ register would be “deliberately set…as high as possible”.

Theresa May in the Commons

But new figures obtained by Sky News show that last year, the 25 police forces who responded to our request for information received 394 applications for removal.

Of those, 304 were approved – a success rate of 77% and a figure which has remained largely consistent over the past five years.

Some forces – including Wiltshire, Suffolk, Northern Ireland and Leicestershire – reported a figure of 100%, although the forces noted that the number of applications was low – with eight cases in Wiltshire, seven in Suffolk, 10 in Leicestershire, and six in Northern Ireland.

The highest numbers were for the Metropolitan Police, the largest force in the country – 136 applied for removal last year and 127 were approved – an approval rate of 93%.

The National Police Chiefs Council points out that the most recent published figures show there were 66,641 registered sex offenders being managed in the community in March 2022 – and “only a relatively small number” are entitled to appeal.

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‘Hidden victims’ of sex offenders

‘People need to have light at the end of the tunnel’

Some legal experts argue that leaving the register can be an important part of rehabilitation.

“People can reform, even those who commit the most egregious acts”, says Akram Mula, a criminal defence solicitor, who argues there are rigorous processes in place to check individuals no longer pose a danger to the public.

“We need to acknowledge the success of proper, well-thought-through rehabilitation programmes,” she adds.

“Individuals who have managed to successfully rehabilitate need to have a light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise they’ve got no goal to work towards.”

But the Conservative MP Mark Fletcher, who has campaigned to tighten the law around sex offenders changing their names, says there needs to be a wider review of the whole process.

Mark Fletcher

Image: Mark Fletcher MP

He says: “It does feel like the system has slipped more in favour of those who are committing the offence than the other parties involved – the victims, and the wider community.

“Those figures you have obtained seem far too high. Sex offenders shouldn’t effectively have the automatic right to come off the register after 15 years.

“Having the sex offenders register is a good thing for the public – it gives them reassurance and it gives victims a level of safety too – but I’m not sure it’s working as intended.”

Read more:

Thousands prosecuted for changing details without telling police

New compensation in England for victims of child sex abuse

‘Police must be satisfied they no longer pose a risk’

Laura is hoping MPs could find a way to change the law.

Her petition needs 100,000 signatures to be debated in the House of Commons.

She says: “These are our worst category of sex offenders. I understand the European Court of Human Rights affords them the right to privacy. But where is that repaid for the victims?”

Her local police force insists protecting the public remains the top priority under the rules as they stand.

A spokesperson for Dorset Police said: “The process for convicted sex offenders applying to come off the register is governed by national legislation and guidance.

“Under this legislation, which is supported by case law, offenders who have been the subject of an indefinite notification can apply to be released from their notification requirements.

“Police must be satisfied that they no longer pose a risk to society having considered a range of factors, which is clearly set out in the guidance.

“Protection of the public remains the priority and this decision is carefully considered.

“We have a robust and lengthy process that our offender managers follow prior to the application being reviewed.

“The decision to end an individual’s indefinite notification requirement is made in light of the individual circumstances and the risk.

“In these cases where the offender has been deemed to no longer pose a risk, they will be removed from the register and will no longer be subject to requirements.

“This can be reviewed if new information comes to light.”

‘No plans’ to change the law

The National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for the Management of Violent and Sexual Offenders, Assistant Chief Constable Jonny Blackwell, also argues the existing rules are some of the world’s toughest.

He said: “Managing the potential risk posed by registered sexual offenders within the community is a complex area of work for police. We work closely with partners as part of a multi-agency approach to manage these offenders.

“Applications for sexual offenders to be removed from their notification requirements are the subject of careful scrutiny by the police force that manages them.

“Each application is thoroughly assessed and decided upon by a senior officer of Superintendent rank working to the Home Office’s legislative framework and guidance, including seeking the views of victims where appropriate.

“UK policing has some of the most advanced and stringent tools in the world to manage registered sex offenders and I am confident that forces across the country are, each day, effectively managing the risk posed to the public by such individuals.”

The Home Office says it has no plans to change the law at present.

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