Data row lifts lid on housing of sex offenders

Freedom of information win could open up major debate, says Stephen Naysmith

Within a few weeks, three west of Scotland housing associations may have the information which they have been seeking about the housing of sex offenders.

After a new ruling by the Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion, Strathclyde Police are likely to have to reveal data which they have been resisting disclosing for four years.

The three companies – Blochairn Housing Association in Royston, Craigdale Housing Association in Castlemilk and Dunbritton Housing Association in Dumbarton – are not looking to identify individuals, or exactly where they live.

Instead they want to know how many offenders are living or have been housed in a series of postcode areas, some wealthy and some deprived.

This will help prove or disprove a theory: that by accident or design, poor communities tend to end up housing the bulk of society’s known sex offenders. This theory, they say, is widespread not just among housing associations but also privately acknowledged by other agencies, including many police officers.

“When you ask people, they will say to you, ‘Obviously it’s true. That’s where the housing is’,” explains Michael Carberry, director of Blochairn Housing Association.

But the actions taken by him and his colleagues at Craigdale and Dunbritton have been criticised. They have been told that their questions could stir up vigilantism or leave communities less safe by driving sex offenders underground, away from monitoring agencies.

Not least of these critics have been Strathclyde Police who refused the initial freedom of information request, on the grounds that listing the number of offenders by postcode areas (the housing associations had asked for the areas to the fourth digit) might lead to individual sex offenders being identified, directly or by using other public information to track them down.

Mr Dunion originally agreed with this view and decided this meant the information could be defined as personal data. He ruled that it was exempt from publication. At an appeal, however, the Court of Session agreed with the three housing associations that the commissioner’s reasons were not explained and judges asked him to think again.

Last week, after seeking additional clarification from the police, Mr Dunion decided he had been wrong in his original view. The information could be published, he said, as there was no evidence it could lead to identification. But he said the data should not be broken down according to the categories authorities use to assess the risk an offender poses, as had been requested.

Mr Carberry described the overturning of the original decision as a “remarkable result” although he said he was disappointed the police had not been ordered to reveal information about categories of risk as well.

The housing associations would like to know about the highest-risk offenders as they are more likely to have served prison sentences, and therefore are more likely to have been given a new home in social housing.

The counter-argument is that only a few individuals are awarded the highest-risk rating, perhaps only a handful in Glasgow. The view Mr Dunion has now taken is that while revealing the overall number of sex offenders housed in an area will not lead to their identification, revealing that there is one high-risk offender in a small postcode area might lead people to try and track that person down.

Mr Carberry said it was still possible he and his co-petitioners might wish to appeal on this point. Strathclyde Police for their part also have 42 days to appeal.

A spokeswoman for the police declined to discuss the case, adding: “Strathclyde Police has noted the decision of the commissioner. We are currently considering our position and as such it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”

The issue is very sensitive, but Mr Carberry said the intention of their Freedom of Information campaign is to provoke a discussion about whether it is appropriate that Scotland’s poorest communities bear a disproportionate responsibility for housing known sex offenders – if indeed their case is proven.

Social work lecturer David McKendrick, of Glasgow Caledonian University, is one of those who believes it will be. “The question is where is the highest level of vacancies and the highest turnover of social housing,” he said.

He added that key questions include whether the same areas are those with the most vulnerable children. “It is likely that there will be a correlation between the numbers of sex offenders housed in an area and the number of children on the child protection register. Areas with high levels of social housing may also have more children who are vulnerable – because they have parents who are unable or unwilling to care for them.”

But there are wider questions too about the housing of sex offenders. Jim Harvey of the West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations said he was supportive of the freedom of information bid, as are many members of the forum.

At the moment, the only social housing provider in the city which is housing sex offenders is Glasgow Housing Association, although this will change as GHA’s stock is handed over to smaller associations.

But others have a range of additional concerns, Mr Harvey said, not least over the impact that housing sex offenders has on other tenants. There is some concern that sex offenders in need of rehousing can be prioritised ahead of others on waiting lists – in order that they can be monitored more easily, and also that restrictions on who can be housed near to them can unfairly penalise other families looking for a home.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government is currently seeking feedback on its National Accommodation Strategy on Sex Offenders – but only from select agencies and without any kind of formal public consultation.

Mr Harvey says the policy has “fundamental weaknesses” and has called for a formal assessment of how the current policy is working – including seeking evidence for the claim often cited by the Government that housing sex offenders in the community and monitoring them makes communities safer.

He, and the forum, also believe that there should be greater transparency about how and where sex offenders are being housed and that the public, especially the communities most likely to be affected in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, should be consulted. “Housing sex offenders in our communities should be part of wider action to highlight the hidden problem of child sex abuse, and linked to public information and education campaigns to prevent this,” he added.

There is undoubtedly resistance to having this debate, but thanks to the Information Commissioner’s decision, the discussion could be about to start.