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Author: Ruth Davies

“What we need now is action” – Unlock’s view on the prisons white paper

The government has published its much-awaited prisons white paper, which covers a great deal of ground from building new prisons to measures to improve access to jobs on release. The latter is the focus of Unlock’s attention and can be found in the third chapter. 

While the paper offers renewed assurances that rehabilitation sits alongside public safety and announces some policies that Unlock would generally be happy to support, it also raises concerns as to whether the proposed measures will result in positive change for people in prison and beyond. 

It is a laundry list of good but unexciting announcements, and critically none of these are new ideas. Every government for several decades has promised to improve education, tackle substance abuse and create an integrated resettlement scheme that brings together probation and relevant local services. We’ve heard this all before. What we need now is action to match the words. 

It is vital for prisoners to have immediate access to housing and support services on release. Homelessness and chaotic living are big drivers of reoffending. Going further with schemes to improve access to universal credit and allow prisoners to open bank accounts before release are solid enough. More ambitious announcements such as an improved job matching service – the White Paper wants to see ‘a job centre in a prison’ – and local employment boards are schemes that can only work if employers support them. The government will have to work hard to make sure employers embrace such proposals, and that those opportunities provide suitable, stable employment. 

The white paper includes some acknowledgement of the challenge a criminal record presents people seeking employment. At Unlock, we see the provision of information about criminal records disclosure as a stepping stone to improving the chances of people leaving prison. But it won’t change the fact that having to disclose your criminal record remains a huge barrier, preventing people moving on positively with their lives.  Criminal record disclosure has become markedly more common, and has continued to increase following the arrival of basic DBS certificates in 2018. While it obviously helps to ensure that people know what disclosure is prior to them seeking employment, it would be much more beneficial to tackle why so many employers feel the need to ask about criminal records at all.  

While the disclosure system remains a significant barrier to work, housing and insurance it’s also an area that the government hasn’t really addressed either in the policing bill or in this white paper. A big part of the reason the government gave for reducing spending periods in the policing bill was to help people find employment and reduce discrimination. However, everyone released from prison still carries the stigma of a criminal record from the day they leave. Most people will have been released on licence and so their spending period is not even ticking down yet. 

It will likely help in a small way that a prison leaver will only have to declare the criminal record for one year instead of two, but this does nothing to address this immediate period when they are at the greatest risk of reoffending and have the greatest need of stable employment. 

The government has done nothing to curb the right of any employer to ask any applicant about their unspent criminal record, and it seems like they don’t intend to. For all of their talk about engaging with employers and finding good placements, these employers will have to go into the arrangements with the knowledge that every applicant definitely has a criminal record.  

These schemes might work. For all we know the next budget could arrive and bring huge sums of money to launch prison leavers back into work and let them live a normal life from day one. But even then, it would do nothing to address the stigma of a criminal record or the challenges that continue to plague people with unspent convictions. 

Things that may initially seem tiny eventually add up to major impact on individuals and their families. Even if prison leavers do land in a good job, they may have to declare their conviction to a landlord before they will agree to rent to them. They certainly will have to disclose to a home insurer or a car insurer before they can get cover, which in turn increases costs and adds to difficulties. Many major employers already ask for disclosure from all applicants, and over half of employers admit they would discriminate against someone with a criminal record.

We certainly hope that the government will deliver on their plans to get prison leavers into work. It is by far the most effective way to ensure people can move on positively with their lives. Unlock and other charities will continue to hold the government to account. And while it glosses over the issue, the white paper is another reminder of why Unlock continues to push for a root and branch review of the criminal records system. As long as we have a system that creates stigma and discrimination, we will continue to see poor results and a revolving door of reoffending. Over the past year we have seen adjustments to criminal records but no fundamental change. For real change for people facing stigma, discrimination and prejudice as a result of their criminal records, we need to change the system.  

Unlock will be responding to the white paper in detail. In the meantime, if you agree that we urgently need a root and branch review of the criminal records system – please join the FairChecks campaign. 

Welcome to the new Unlock website

We’ve spent the last few months working hard behind the scenes to build our new website – we hope you like it! Our main goal was to make our information and advice for people with criminal records much easier to find and navigate. That way the people we exist to help can find what they need straight away. We also wanted to update the look and feel of the site, with accessibility as the top priority. We hope you’ll find it really easy to find what you’re looking for – but if you’re a long-time user of our old site there are a few things you will notice.   Continue reading “Welcome to the new Unlock website”

Unlock’s annual report 2020/21

Each year we publish our annual report and accounts – which you can read in full on the Charity Commission’s website. In a year like no other, we’re proud that we continued to grow and develop our support, policy work and advocacy for people with criminal records. We’re also incredibly grateful to all the funders, individual donors and volunteers who support our work. Below is a summary of what we achieved in the year 2020-21.

Download the summary as a PDF



Reflections of an Unlock helpline volunteer

The first week of June is Volunteer Week – when charities across the country say thank you and showcase the amazing work of their committed volunteers. We asked one of our brilliant helpline volunteers to share their experiences of working with us. In this blog our volunteer (who we’re keeping anonymous to protect their privacy) shares their reflections on what volunteering has meant to them, and the impact of the last year on people with criminal records.

In 2019, having been in a profession I loved for the last ten years, I had to resign from my job as someone in the company found out about my historic conviction that was 12 years old at the time. Even though the relevant people already knew about it when I started, I still had to resign for the safety of my family.   

With no job I landed at the door of the Job Centre and the debacle that was Universal Credit, with a job coach that did not know what to do with me, we just went through the usual process. Being on the job scrap heap I decided to see what was out there I could do, and decided to see if there was any volunteer work I could do. I had always known about Unlock as I had used their helpline in the past, so when I saw on their website they were looking for volunteers, I sent off my application.  

Having successfully completed the interview I started as soon as I could, it was a weight off my shoulders to finally work for an organisation that did not care about my past and saw me for the skills and abilities I could bring to the organisation. For the first time in a long time I was not having to continually look over my shoulder worrying that someone from my past might recognise me.  

Before being let loose full training was given in all aspects of subjects that come across the helpline, and training on how to answer enquires that are received. What I found important was that you were not just thrown in the deep end and made to swim; the training was at the pace of the person undertaking it. Once my training was completed I started off answering emails and letters under supervision, then once I had accomplished this I moved onto the telephone. With my first day taking calls fast approaching the butterflies in my stomach were doing cart wheels, but with the training and support that was given by experienced team members these butterflies soon passed.   

This role has been extremely thought provoking. While offering advice and guidance to not only people with criminal records but also external stakeholders, it has made me realise how much support is required and how much at times the help is not there for individuals, and how many individuals face disadvantage and discrimination.  

While assisting on the charity’s helpline I have also assisted in a number of research tasks, including looking at housing policies of councils within the UK and how they affect a person with a criminal conviction.  

This insight along with the skills and knowledge I have gained in offering advice and guidance to people that contact the charity has made me see how important advocating for change is, and the job that we do helps a sector of society that is greatly penalised by the communities they live within.   

The skills and abilities I have gained have come to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. The learning curve increased greatly in having to undertake remote working to ensure with other staff members that the helpline has been fully active and contactable to the public. This has included tracking criminal justice and Government websites for changes in legislation announced during the lockdown, for instance identifying changes to security vetting procedures and also the impact a person under ROTL has dealt with the implementation of the furlough scheme, and ensuring that this is correctly communicated.  

My work on the helpline continues as we get ready to return back to the office, and reflecting back I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given in learning new skills and abilities and will continue to volunteer for a long as I can. When volunteering you feel you have a purpose in life, when most other people turn their back on you. There is a great satisfaction when you realise that you have helped someone and you can hear in their voice or through the tears over the phone how much the advice and guidance you have given them has made such an impact on their life and helped in the problem they have called you about.  


Introducing our new CEO: Angela Cairns

We’re delighted to announce that experienced charity leader Angela Cairns will be the charity’s new Chief Executive, and will take up the role on Monday 17 May. 

Angela joins Unlock after five years as CEO of the criminal justice charity Shannon Trust. She has worked in the voluntary sector since 2002, supporting people to bring about positive change in their lives. Specialised in leading small organisations that punch above their weight, Angela has a strong track record in organisational development, frontline delivery and advocating for change. She is passionate about bringing the voices of people experiencing discrimination and disadvantage to the forefront of debate. 

Having recently celebrated the charity’s 21st birthday and launched an ambitious new strategy for the next five years, it’s an exciting time to welcome Angela’s energy, passion and expertise to the organisation.  

Mark Rowe, Chair of Trustees at Unlock, said: 

“Everyone at Unlockis delightedthat Angela is joining Unlock at this exciting time for the charity. She brings a wealth of leadership experience from her previous charity and criminal justice sector roles. She will be a hugely valuable asset for Unlock as we build on our successes to date and begin to deliver our ambitious new strategic planto continue support our beneficiaries.” 

Angela said: 

“I’m delighted to be joining the fantastic team at Unlock as we roll out a new five-year strategy. Together we will continue bringing about positive change with and for people with criminal records who are effectively serving a second sentence.” 

Our Spring 2021 newsletter

Today we’ve published our Spring 2021 newsletter.

The newsletter provides an update of the news at Unlock in the last three months, and we hope it’s a useful way of keeping up to date with what we’ve been up to.

Read: Spring 2021 newsletter

Previous newsletters are available online here. You can receive future newsletters direct to your inbox by signing up to our mailing list.

Happy 21st Birthday Unlock!

This year Unlock celebrates its 21st birthday, which we’re marking on the same day we publish our ambitious new strategic plan for 2021-26. Alongside the new strategy, we’re launching our new strapline: ‘for people with criminal records‘. We’ve chosen to do this because – although a subtle change to our language – we believe it’s the most inclusive way to talk about the people we exist to help.

From the very beginning Unlock has been led by the experiences and expertise of people with criminal records, and our new strategy is no exception. The priorities we’ve set out have been guided by what people with criminal records have suggested we should focus on. Although the Covid-19 pandemic meant we had to get creative in how we did this, we were still able to engage with over 200 individuals to get their input into our future priorities, nearly 80% of whom were people with criminal records, and the remaining 20% were family, friends and professionals supporting them.

Our vision is of a fair and inclusive society where people with criminal records are free from stigma, prejudice and discrimination. The priorities and activities set out in our new strategy will help us to get there. Find out more about how we’re measuring our progress.

We’re excited about where we’re going, and proud of where we’ve come from. Throughout the day we’ll be sharing kind birthday messages from some of the people we’ve been proud to work with and support over the years – follow along on Twitter @unlockcharity and make sure you join our mailing list for all the latest news from Unlock.




New report highlights impact of criminal records on women

While women overall are less likely to have a criminal record than menthose women who do are more likely to face barriers when accessing employment according to the report, Angels or witches”: The impact of criminal records on women, published on International Women’s Day by Unlock. 

The report, which brings together the voices and experiences of women with criminal records alongside data on employment and criminal record checks, highlights the need for dedicated strategies to address the post-conviction problems women face.  

The vast majority of women surveyed as part of the research (86%) cited employment as a problem, with 63% saying it was the biggest problem they faced. One woman said:

“I’ve been struggling to get work. I can’t work in finance or admin roles for local government like I did previously as I need an enhanced DBS. I now work in low paid cleaning jobs but struggle to find cleaning work as all school cleaners, doctors surgeries need enhanced DBS checks.”  

By analysing data on the number of criminal record checks that disclosed convictions, the researchers found that, although less likely than men to have a criminal record, women are almost twice as likely to have their criminal records disclosed on a DBS check. One possible explanation for this is the higher level of checks required for traditionally female-dominated roles, such as care work and education. 

Over half of women surveyed felt that being a woman made their post-conviction problems worse, with many citing additional stigma face by women with convictions. One respondent said: 

Women are still treated as either angels or witches, there is no in between. Women with convictions are demonised in ways that men never have been 

What is also clear in the report is that for many women, their convictions exist alongside significant trauma; nearly two thirds (59%) of women surveyed reported having experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. A tenth said they had been a sex worker at some point in their lives, and 31% had experienced addiction or substance misuse. And yet there is a dangerous lack of support or understanding to enable these women to move on positively in their lives – they are simply handed the stigma that comes with a criminal record. 

Dr Rachel Tynan, Practice and Policy Lead at Unlock, said:

“These findings clearly demonstrate that women face specific barriers and challenges because of their criminal record – and that these aren’t properly understood. That’s why we’re calling on the government to conduct a full root and branch review of the criminal records system, including the proportionality and impact on women and people with other protected characteristics.  

“We also need to see a dedicated employment strategy that recognises and responds to the specific challenges faced by women leaving prison and on probation. If women are being locked out of the jobs they have trained for because of minor convictions, how are they supposed to make a positive contribution to society?”

This report was produced as part of Unlock’s Unlocking Experience project. Find out more about the project and the previous two reports, focussed on the experiences of young people and BAME people with criminal records. Our thanks to Barrow Cadbury Trust for funding this work.

Co-director Chris to move on from Unlock and join Clinks

After 12 years at Unlock, and over seven years as co-director, Christopher Stacey will be leaving the charity at the end of January to take up the role of Director of Support and Development at Clinks 

Mark Rowe, Chair of the board of trustees, said: 

“Chris has been a terrific colleague and asset to Unlock, and has made a real difference to the lives of people with a criminal record. We wish him well as he pursues the next opportunity in his career. The Board and Unlock’s co-director have agreed to take this opportunity to recruit a CEO to take forward Unlock’s work and further details of this will shortly be released.” 

Chris said:  

“It’s going to feel bittersweet for me to move on from Unlock after 12 years. I’m incredibly proud of my time at the charity, and it has been an absolute privilege to have been co-director of such an amazing and unique charity for the last seven years. For a small charity, Unlock has really packed a punch when it comes to impact, and put simply, it’s a fantastic organisation. It’s got a great reputation, it’s in a strong position and it’s had some amazing successes. I know that it will continue to go from strength to strength in the future. It represents a cause that I am deeply passionate about and I will continue to champion Unlock and its mission in any way that I can.



Pardons for historic gay convictions: a call for evidence

It is quite rare for any government to admit to some historic wrongdoing, and even more so to take some concrete efforts to tackle it. When the government announced that it would be creating a process for gay and bisexual men to have their certain convictions removed from the record, this was a unique opportunity to right many historic wrongs.

However, the reality hasn’t lived up to the potential. To gain a pardon, people have to apply for one, which hugely limits the scheme’s reach. Many eligible people don’t know the pardons exist, and the vast majority of men who were persecuted for being gay or bi are not willing to trust the government to handle cases privately and sensitively.

We want to hear from people who were prosecuted for historic gay offences and who have not yet applied for a pardon.

Click here to share your story.

What is eligible?

Only convictions under sections 12 and 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 are eligible – “buggery” and “gross indecency” – and only if the charge would not be illegal under another law today. For example, charges for sexual activity in public cannot be pardoned because they would still be illegal, even though this kind of charge was historically used to persecute gay and bi men.

This means that there are only two types of convictions which can be pardoned. First; convictions which date from before 1967, and which were only brought because both partners were male. Second; convictions from after 1967 which occurred because the age of consent was different for gay and bi men. For both types, as long as both partners were over 16 at the time, and there was no other criminal behaviour, then you are eligible to apply first for a disregard and then a pardon.

“Disregards” were created in 2012, and allowed these two types of convictions to be removed from criminal record checks. Pardons were created in 2017, after Alan Turing was given a posthumous pardon for his homophobic convictions, and were then made available to all men with similar charges. The disregard has the real legal force and removes the conviction from public record, with a pardon more representing an apology from the British state.

Despite existing since 2012, only 483 people have successfully applied for a disregard, and even fewer for a pardon. The combination of strict eligibility criteria with the need to actively apply ensures that the numbers are much lower than the number of outstanding convictions.

It is difficult to know how many men with eligible convictions are still alive, but between 1967 and 2003 when the offences were abolished, there were 26,652 convictions for “Buggery” and 37,200 for “Gross Indecency”. About 30,000 of these convictions were prosecuted after 1980, so there are at least tens of thousands of men who could be pardoned who have not been.

Unlock are hoping to show that the process of disregards and pardons is unfair and discriminatory. While no more people can be prosecuted under the old laws, as long as the criminal records continue to exist, the old regime has not truly been abolished. Thousands of men still have to live with the fallout from a system which attacked them for their sexuality, and to escape that they are expected to apply to the same government which persecuted them.

About You

We want to hear from all men who could benefit from a disregard or a pardon, to hear about their challenges and experience of the criminal justice system. However, we are particularly keen to hear from men who have held off from seeking a pardon because of concerns about their privacy and their past being dredged up again.

  • You could be any age today, but are likely between 40 and 80.
  • You must have been convicted of an s.12 or s.13 offence before 2003.
  • You must be eligible for a disregard or pardon, so your conviction can only be for activity that is legal today and with a partner who was over 16 at the time.
  • You must have not yet applied for a disregard or pardon, because either you are afraid the process will involve your convictions becoming public, or because you are concerned the process will be insensitive and accusatory.

Get in touch

Click here to share your story. We want to hear about all experiences and points of view about pardons and disregards, both positive and negative. We understand that these kind of convictions can be difficult to talk about, but your input are critical to our efforts to improve the system and ensure as many people as possible benefit from it.

Your experiences will only be shared with your consent, and Unlock will never reveal your name or any other identifying details.

Read more

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