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An independent evaluation of our helpline

Today, we’re delighted to publish Unlocking the helpline, an independent analysis and evaluation of our confidential peer-run helpline carried out by Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York.

Ever since Unlock started as a charity over 15 years ago, we’ve provided peer advice to people with convictions. Eight years ago we employed our first dedicated member of staff to run our helpline and for over 7 years we’ve been recruiting volunteers from the community in Kent (including from nearby open prisons).

Although a lot has changed in that time, one thing has remained the same – people with convictions continue to come to us looking for information, advice and support to try and deal with the stigma and discrimination they’re facing because of their criminal record.

We speak to thousands of people every year – people facing a wide-range of issues relating to their criminal records. Finding a job, getting insurance, renting a house and going abroad on holiday, to name but a few.

However, as an independent service that’s charitably funded and reliant on trusts, foundations and donations to continue operating, it’s important that we can show that what we’re doing is making a difference and that it deserves support. As is the case with many helplines, it’s hard to show the impact it has on the people that contact us.

So we set about trying to find out more. It wasn’t really about numbers. We know how many people we speak to. We have a good idea of who they are, where they come from and what problems they’re having. What we didn’t know was answers to questions like:

  1. How useful is our helpline?
  2. How helpful is it that it’s peer run (i.e. run by people with convictions)
  3. What works well?
  4. Where could we improve?

That’s why a couple of years ago we embarked on undertaking an independent evaluation of our helpline with the support of Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York; she’s an expert in conversational analysis. We worked hard to make sure that the system we set up would enable a robust evaluation to take place without getting in the way of the confidentiality we attach to the helpline.

Over the space of five months, two of our helpline advisors recorded over 200 calls (with the callers’ permission). We then handed over the recordings to Sue and her team and waited for the results.What you can read below is a summary of the report and its key findings. You can also download the full report, which has been independently written by the author, Sue Wilkinson.

We are delighted with the findings in Unlocking the helpline – with this report we have strong, indepedent evidence to show how our helpline works and how it operates. It shows the value of having people with personal experience, the benefit of having a supportive voice at the end of the phone and the importance of knowing you’re speaking to somebody who knows what they’re talking about.

We hope that this report will support our efforts in continuing the run our helpline in a way that is independent, confidential, high-quality, peer run and reliable.

Some of the findings and comments in the report that stood out to me were:

“Overall, the helpline appears extremely effective as a source of information, and it is clearly also providing callers with a significant amount of non-informational support.”


“The Unlock helpline is relatively unusual in that the call-takers do not strive for neutrality: rather, one of its ‘hallmarks’ is the degree of understanding and empathy that is displayed by the call-takers, as part of the process of providing non-informational help and support for callers.”


“Call-takers promote positive thinking and discourage negative thinking.”


“Offering reassurance and boosting confidence fit well with Unlock’s aim of empowerment of people with convictions.”


“Call-takers clearly draw on their personal and professional experience”

We are grateful to Professor Sue Wilkinson of the University of York and her team for all their hard work on this report. We hope you find the report an interesting read.


Useful links

  1. Find out more about the evaluation here
  2. You can download the full evaluation here
  3. More details about the helpline that Unlock runs can be found here
  4. If you’re interested in supporting our helpline, you can donate to us here or visit the ‘get involved’ section of our website.


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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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