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Author: Angela Cairns

Want to ‘fix’ labour shortages? Start seeing the person, not their past

Last week, Dominic Raab called for employers to recruit people in and leaving prison to help plug the skills gap in an array of sectors, from haulage to hospitality. The Secretary of State rightly recognises this is a group of people who are unemployed and underemployed. In encouraging employers to give people a fair chance to get a job, the government is taking steps – albeit baby ones – to change the narrative around employing people with criminal records.  

Whilst we welcome these signs of change from government, they need to translate into more than just words of encouragement. A secure job, somewhere to live and support from family and friends are key to anyone living a positive life. Yet people with criminal records face challenges to this; long periods where they have to disclose their record to employers, housing providers and insurance companies – and even once a conviction is spent, someone’s past can resurface at the click of a Google search button.  When half of employers admit they would discriminate against someone with a criminal record, this matters.

Recent announcements from the government do nothing to address the barriers that stand between the almost 12 million people with a criminal record and a normal life. If we’re serious about getting people back into the workforce and into society, we need to make fundamental changes to a system that leaves people trapped in their past.  

We can’t view people as simply disposable assets who are rolled out at a time of crisis. People with criminal records are not part of a reserve army of labour. Nor will they all necessarily be able to work in an abattoir, drive an HGV lorry or make you the perfect coffee. But everyone deserves the chance of a job, a safe place to live and a sense of connection to their community.  

At Unlock, we want people to be employed because of their skills, experience and ability first and foremost. For this to happen, society needs to believe in rehabilitation, to believe that people can and do change. We need a criminal records disclosure system which is not unnecessarily punitive and arbitrary.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill going currently going through parliament goes a small way to reducing the time periods some people will have to disclose their criminal record, but it doesn’t go far enough. As we continue to campaign for further change, we ask employers to make a difference by seeing the person first – and recognising that in most cases, there is no need to ask someone about their criminal record before you meet them.  

If you’re an employer and want to find out more about criminal records and fair recruitment, visit our Recruit website.

Unlock Annual Report 2018-19

We are delighted to publish our Annual Report and Accounts for the year 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. Reviewing a whole year of activity can be a demanding process. Our activities are always taking us forwards, driving us on to the next challenge, so to take a step away, look back and reflect, can sometimes seem like a distraction. In fact, it is extremely important to take that time. The Annual Report gives us an archive of what Unlock has done in the course of a year and, crucially, provides an overview of how that activity cumulates to make a significant, positive impact on the lives of people with convictions. It’s also an opportunity to say a huge thank you to all the wonderful people who make our work possible – our Trustees, staff, volunteers, Patrons, contributors to our web resources, partners, donors and funders.

At the beginning of this financial year, we were preparing for the appeal by the Government at the Supreme Court of a complex case challenging the current criminal records system. It was the first time in Unlock’s 18-year history that we had intervened in a legal case, but we were committed because of the potential to achieve a better a system from one that continues to trap people in their pasts. The work was made possible by the 555 pledges of donations through Crowdfunder, which helped us raise over £17,000 towards our legal and campaign costs. Our evidence demonstrated the breadth and scale of the problem (for example, that in the last 5 years, nearly 1 million youth criminal records disclosed on standard/ enhanced checks were over 30 years old). We also demonstrated that generally, employers do not make deeper assessments of individuals but default to avoiding selecting candidates with any kind of criminal record. The judgement came at the end of January 2019, with a ruling that two aspects of the criminal records disclosure scheme are disproportionate and in breach of Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. We were pleased that the judgement provides a crucial step towards achieving a fair and proportionate filtering system that takes a more calibrated and targeted approach to disclosing criminal records. When taken together with reviews by the Law Commission, Justice Select Committee, Charlie Taylor and David Lammy MP there is a powerful case for a fundamental review of the wider criminal records disclosure regime.

Since the judgement, we have been working with others to argue for that wider review, and, ultimately, for a fairer, proportionate and flexible filtering system that protects the public without unduly harming the ability of people to move forward positively with their lives.

“I hope you’re successful in helping people move away from their pasts and live their lives without the worry and shame of their past.”  (Crowdfunder donor)

In July 2018, Rachel Tynan joined the staff team, to a newly created role of Policy and Practice Lead. Rachel had previously worked in the Civil Service and higher education and joined us following the completion of her PhD and a stint at Open Book at Goldsmiths. Her role is designed to support our campaigning and policy work. As Rachel says:

“Research consistently shows that re-offending is reduced where people are in sustainable employment or training, and employers and universities providing opportunities are contributing to a safer and more just society.”

Rachel has worked closely with Co-director, Christopher Stacey, on a number of our policy issues. As well as the work pushing for a review of the criminal records system, our work has included, working directly with employers to improve their recruitment processes, working with universities to increase access to higher education, researching the increased impact of having a criminal record on young and BAME people, challenging Google and other search engines to remove spent convictions from their indexing and helping people with convictions to understand the law discouraging people with convictions to become charity trustees or senior leaders. We were delighted to see the government abandon the disproportionate, unfair and ineffective “disqualification by association” rules for schools. We also published a number of consultations, submissions and reports including

  • A report – A life sentence for young people – on the impact of criminal records acquired in childhood and early adulthood (May 2018)
  • A paper – University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps (June 2018)
  • A report – A question of fairness – research on employment practice of top national employer (October 2018)

Unlock’s policy work is, of course, based on the experiences of people using our direct information, advice and support services. It is only by listening to personal experience that we can see where problems lie and how things can be improved. Our helpline means we are talking to people and helping them overcome their individual challenges daily and our online resources help people find their own solutions at times and in ways that suit them best. We are delighted that we continue to reach large numbers of people with all our services, and that we continue to get very positive feedback on the help we offer.

“Having access to Unlock really gives me the confidence for the future. It is very important to know the facts when applying for employment. My offences were some 20 years ago, and it been a long interesting journey with life to this point. I don’t want to blow it or let those down who have invested time in me to get to this stage because of ‘misinformation’ or incorrect facts.”

“I wanted to get in touch to firstly thank you for the advice and support I received leading up to my applying for University. Secondly to update you with my conditional offer to study BSc Hons Social Work! Without your organisation’s help I would not have had the confidence or motivation to put myself out there as someone with a criminal record for fear of rejection.”

The enquiries our team responds to cover a huge range of problems, across employment, education, training, housing, financial matters and travel. An example of the complicated way having a criminal record affects people, include a client who had believed her 22-year-old conviction was not only spent but would also be filtered from an enhanced DBS check, only to discover that because there were three ‘counts’ it was not filtered. Our support helped them make the case to keep their teaching job.

We are indebted to our volunteers – all people with convictions and some still serving prison sentences – who train as helpline volunteers, and over the year answered nearly 75% of enquiries. We aim to make volunteering for us as beneficial as possible to the volunteer, providing as much training and support as possible.

This is just an introduction to the full story of our activities which we hope you will enjoy reading in our Annual Report.

We’re happy to give the last word to two of our supporters, who were inspired to make donations to help our work:

“I’m an ex-offender who was fortunate enough to be able to largely support myself through the criminal justice process in the main (thank goodness) but 15 years on, when life dictates, you are still the first port of call for advice. Thank you for everything you did for me and continue to do and fight for others.”

“May I take this opportunity to warmly applaud and thank you for the excellent work you are doing. From my experience of living abroad in several Western European countries I have long thought the UK criminal justice system to be far too heavy handed and punitive. It does not surprise me that a criminal record in the UK has a greater, longer term effect than other EU countries.”

Julie Harmsworth 


Unlock’s co-founder, Bob Turney, becomes a patron








We are extremely delighted to announce that Bob Turney, one of Unlock’s co-founders, has joined us as a patron.  

Bob had served twenty years in various prisons then gone on to gain a degree in Forensic Social Work. By 1997, he was enjoying a career as a Probation Officer, yet time and time again was coming across people who were struggling to reintegrate back into society despite their best efforts to put their offending behind them. There was, he believed, a need for an organisation that could support them and the idea of founding one was formed.  

Unlock was launched in 1999. It went on to gain charitable status in 2000. However, with growing demands on his time as a probation officer and with a growing family, Bob felt it time to take a back seat and make way for full-time staff to take the charity forward.   

Writing in theRecord in 2017, Bob describes his own experiences of ‘going straight’ and his role in the founding of Unlock. He was by then a patron of the Longford Trust and had been attending the Trust’s annual lecture and award ceremony in 2016 when much to his delight, Unlock was awarded the Longford Prize. The event provided a wonderful opportunity for him and Unlock to re-connect and we are thrilled that he again pledged to support our work saying, “I am really grateful to all the staff and volunteers at Unlock for the vital work they are doing in helping people to cast off the baggage of their past. My time with this wonderful charity was incredibly rewarding and I am so happy to see it going from strength to strength.” 

Welcome back Bob! 

Julie Harmsworth 

Unlock welcomes Nick Hardwick as its new Patron


Unlock is extremely fortunate in enjoying the support of some incredible Patrons, so when our President Lord Ramsbotham suggested Nick Hardwick would be a valuable addition having stepped down as Chief Inspector of HM Prisons earlier this year, well, we were only too pleased to take his advice and invite Nick to join us. We were even more pleased when Nick accepted our invitation to become a Patron.

Whilst in post at the Inspectorate, Nick was notoriously outspoken in his criticism of the prison system, which didn’t always go down well with some government officials. Impervious to any interference in carrying out his duties, he railed against disgusting conditions, the shocking level of violence and suicide, and the dysfunction of YOIs. Perhaps it is little wonder then that after six years of witnessing such a system that stubbornly refused to change, he wasn’t sad to leave the job.




On doing so, he is reported as saying “I’m surprised by how much I don’t like being in prison. Although I have keys and can get out at any time, and I regard myself as pretty resilient, it’s the noise, the echo, the clanging, the claustrophobia, the sense that even if you’ve got keys you’re shut in, and the unhappiness.”

“I didn’t understand the degree to which, once you lock someone up, even in the best prisons for a short period of time; that is a very severe punishment indeed. It’s as bad as you could possibly imagine and possibly more so, and don’t think a little flat-screen television in the corner is going to alleviate it, because it doesn’t.”

Unlock’s helpline is contacted daily by people with convictions who struggle to move on in their lives – some have been to prison, others not. It’s the conviction that causes problems not the sentence, though undoubtedly imprisonment brings its own barriers to overcome. One of the problems of prisons, pronounces Nick, is that they don’t prepare you to return to society. “What a good prison does is teach you to be a good prisoner, so it teaches you to be compliant, not to use your initiative, to do what you’re told, to rein in your emotions, and that isn’t necessarily what you need to do to be a good citizen, or a good parent.”

Now Chair of the Parole Board, and part-time Professor in Criminal Justice at the School of Law, Royal Holloway University of London, Nick brings to Unlock a wealth of experience and knowledge, not only of prisons but also of his years in working for the voluntary sector beforehand.

He declares, “I am really pleased to have this opportunity to support Unlock whose work I have admired for a long time. We all sometimes need a chance to make a new start – and this is particularly true of former prisoners. It is in no-one’s interest to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of building a new productive and law-abiding life – it harms not just former prisoners themselves but their families and the communities of which they are part. Unlock has won praise for the work they have done to help prisoners make the transition through the prison gates and I am pleased to be able to support them.”

Welcome on-board Nick.

Julie Harmsworth, Co-director

December 2016

The Longford Prize 2016

What a night!

Attending the annual Longford Lecture at Church House, Westminster last night, it was a huge privilege to receive the Longford Prize 2016 on behalf of Unlock together with my Co-director Christopher Stacey.

The Longford Prize ‘recognises the contribution of an individual, group or organisation working in the area of penal or social reform in showing outstanding qualities of humanity, courage, persistence, originality and commitment to diversity’. Unlock was joint winner with The Shakespeare Trilogy.

Presenting the award Lord Longford’s daughter Rachel Billington was joined on stage by Kevin McGrath of the McGrath Charitable Trust who generously donated prize money of £5,000, shared between the winners. The award itself had been commissioned by the Trust from one of is former Longford Scholars, Ben Levings, now forging a successful career as a carver and stonemason, who designed the award. Rachel commented, “Made of stainless steel, glass and Yew, the detail on the statuette represents the lock indicator found on UK prison doors. The award represents, Ben says, the door unlocked, transparency and reflection – some of the things that he felt are celebrated by the Longford Prize and the work of those who receive it.”

It has pride of place in our office today.


What further added to the joy of the occasion was the first person to come and offer his congratulations. None other than Bob Turney, who was one of Unlock’s founders back in 1999 and a patron of the Longford Trust. Bob beamed as he shook our hands saying “I am so proud! It’s fantastic to see Unlock win this prize. You’re doing a brilliant job!” Having re-established contact with him he’s keen to be kept up-to-date with our work.

A good friend to Unlock over the years, former Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon was also honoured when she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment to those on the margins of society. A well-deserved recognition.

PRT’s new Director, Peter Dawson, too offered his congratulations saying that one of the things he really admired about Unlock was that we were willing to do “the boring stuff” – “stuff that nobody else wants to do but what is SO important”. He summed it up pretty well!


By Julie Harmsworth, Co-director

Look what we’ve done! 

You can see all we achieved in 2015/16 in our annual report.

Why we are here

The world is increasingly complex for anyone with a conviction. It can leave many people hopeless and despairing of ever re-building their lives. The law around disclosure is complicated and inconsistent. There are fewer and fewer sources of advice. Use – often unfair use – of the DBS is snowballing. It gets harder to maintain personal privacy in an online world. Unlock gives people practical help to deal with the everyday challenges of living with a criminal record. We also lobby for fairer systems – changes to make a big difference to many people.

What did we achieve in 2015/16?

In 2015/16 our staff of five:

  • campaigned for fairer job-recruitment practices
    • we produced helpful guidance
    • we queried the use of badly-worded forms
    • we challenged employers who used  the wrong level of criminal records check
  • gave information to hundreds of thousands of people via our Information Hub (nearly 900,000 unique visits).
  • engaged with thousands more people with our Disclosure CalculatorForum and e-magazine (theRecord).
  • helped more than 4000 individuals to get the information and advice they needed via our Helpline.
  • trained 162 professional practitioners – helping them to help others understand about criminal records.
  • gave face-to-face information to dozens of people in prison.
  • supported 14 volunteers (including serving prisoners) to become Helpline Assistants and gain valuable work experience.

All this has made a profound difference to individual lives.

“When I first got in touch with Unlock I was very low, but they gave me the emotional support and encouragement I needed. I had felt very isolated but knowing that someone else was there who knew what I was going through kept me going. I don’t know if I’d be here today if it wasn’t for Unlock.”

“… the information I’ve received off Unlock has been invaluable and has gone a long way to making me feel like my life isn’t ruined! The helpline is amazing; always well-staffed and every single person I spoke to was informative, helpful, reassuring and most importantly, non- judgemental.”

This year is even busier! With the need for our work ever-expanding, we estimate over 6000 people will use our Helpline and we’ll receive over one million visits to our online resources.

We would like to thank you anyone who has helped us in the last year, and if you would like to continue help us and remain independent we are grateful for any donations.

Marking 15 years of Unlock

Unlock has now been a charity for fifteen years. To mark the occasion, supporters and beneficiaries joined staff, trustees, patrons, Peers and volunteers at a reception hosted by our President, Lord Ramsbotham.

With the kind permission of The Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, Lord Ramsbotham sponsored our use of the stunning House of Lords River Room; a room reserved primarily for functions held by UK charities, which Lord Ramsbotham described as the loveliest room in the whole of the House. In his welcome speech to guests, he talked about his involvement with Unlock from its beginning and how we have achieved so much whilst remaining true to our founding principal that people with convictions remain at the heart of the charity. Moreover, we have come to play a valuable role in informing government policy by bringing to it a unique insight informed by the experience of thousands of people who we support.

Lord Ramsbotham (President of Unlock) and Andrew Selous MP (Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation)

A point similarly acknowledged by one of our guest speakers, Andrew Selous MP, Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation.  With rehabilitation very much at the top of the Minister’s agenda, he described how impressed he was with Unlock’s past and present work and how important it was that we continue. Remarking on a recent visit to a prison, he had been impressed to find prisoners there opening bank accounts as an important part of their pre-release planning, acknowledging how having an account underpinned their ability to get jobs, accommodation and access to services that would be essential in reducing the likelihood of them re-offending. He paid tribute to Unlock’s work with banks, government and prisons that introduced the, now, routine practice. The Minister went on to stress the importance of employment for people with convictions and was keen to learn more about Unlock’s work to challenge and support employers in changing the way employers manage their employment practices.

Another guest speaker was Catherine Sermon, Employment Director of Business in the Community. Catherine echoed the Minister’s emphasis on the importance of employment and in particular, of the work Unlock is doing alongside the BITC to change the way employers set about recruitment by its ‘Ban the Box’ approach. That is, to remove the tick-box on application forms that asks people to declare unspent convictions and deferring it to a later stage when an individual’s application had been judged solely on merit and a candidate invited for interview or even offered the job.

The room was then moved to hear two people – Donald and Sam (names changed to protect their identities) – describe their experience of how it feels to be judged on their past convictions when looking for work and how Unlock had helped them both practically and emotionally to move on positively in their lives. It was humbling to listen to them talk about how their lives had been made better by the work we do. There were a few tissues being discreetly applied to eyes all around the room!

Our final speaker was one of our newer trustees – Val Woodcock. Val had found Unlock after seeing the effect that having a conviction had been on a family friend. She recounted how she learned first-hand how her friend found living with a conviction was as bad if not worse than his time in prison. It was a double-punishment. A story we hear time and again from people coming to us for help.

Meeting so many of the people who support Unlock and also the people we in turn help, was a very special occasion. The charity has come a long way in the past fifteen years and we’ve achieved some outstanding successes along the way. We’re grateful to everyone who came along and helped us mark this milestone and to all those who were unable to come but who continue to support the work we do.

We look forward to the next fifteen years!


Written by Julie Harmsworth, Co-Director of Unlock

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