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Category: Way ROA works

A smarter approach to criminal records?

On the 16th September the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published it’s much anticipated white paper “A Smarter Approach To Sentencing”. It is a mixed bag, offering  ‘tough on crime’ sentencing measures along with some more positive reforms to criminal record disclosure periods.    

The MoJ says that they want to improve employment prospects for people with convictions, and so reduce reoffending, which sounds great. Given that they have also announced some positive changes you could be forgiven for thinking that reducing disclosure periods might actually ensure better access to employment. Unfortunately it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

Seen in a vacuum the proposals are somewhat progressive. A significant number of people, 15,000 per year, would see their convictions become spent more quickly, and no longer have to disclose them for most jobs. Many other people who have been living with an unspent criminal record for decades would finally be able to move on, as the proposed changes would enable some sentences over four years to become spent. That’s a strong start.  

Here are what the proposed disclosure periods look like in more detail:









There are three things that really jump out.   

Firstly, some sentences over four years would have the opportunity to become spent. The asterisks are quite significant, with most violent, sexual and terrorist offences excluded, which means only about 30% of longer sentences are eligible. But in spite of this, it would still be a big change. At the last review in 2014, even this limited version seemed impossible. 

Secondly, disclosure periods would be generally shortened, which would reduce the period people face discrimination forThis is certainly better than nothing, but the periods are still quite long even compared to other proposals from within Parliament. Lord Ramsbotham’s 2017 bill proposed cutting four year periods to two years, for example, but the MoJ has chosen to ignore this despite crossparty support.  

Finally; the shortest period of disclosures would cover sentences under 12 months, instead of only six months. This is in line with the changes we saw in Scotland, with all magistrates sentences being spent at the same rate . This would result in far fewer cases where the differences between regions and judges leads to a major difference in disclosure length.  

To put these changes into perspective; MoJ figures show 7,980 people were given sentences between six months and one year in 2019/20. At present they have to disclose their convictions for four years; under these proposals they would only have to disclose for one year. Around 7,500 people receive sentences of over 30 months each year, and they would only disclose for four years instead of seven after these changes. 

However, while shortened disclosure periods will certainly help thousands of people get their lives back on track, the white paper still seems to have missed the point. The proposals are a general relaxation, but they do little to actually improve employment prospects.  

The critical time for employment is at the beginning of the disclosure period, not the end. Finding the first job is the hardest part, when discrimination is most felt. Reducing the period of discrimination is positive, but the discrimination is still there and will still hold people backEven while the MoJ is making the right argument about employment, they don’t offer proposals to tackle this core issue. 

This can be seen in other places, especially in the rationale given for preventing most longer sentences becoming spent. The white paper justifies shortened disclosure periods by arguing that employment reduces reoffending. We completely agree, and the evidence backs this up. But a few paragraphs later, the paper says lifelong disclosure, and lifelong discrimination, is justified because reoffending would be particularly harmful. Surely if reoffending would be so bad it is even more important to do everything we can to reduce it, including improved access to employment? 

People with more serious convictions face more serious discrimination, and for longer. The MoJ knows this is a big factor in reoffending, but they are not doing anything to change it. Most alarmingly, by continuing with lifelong disclosure the MoJ is signalling that many thousands of people cannot be rehabilitated and always present a risk to the public, even after 40 or 50 years. 

In the end, while this paper says all the right things about employment and reoffending, the MoJ are content to leave the old system intact and not consider a genuinely new approach. They argue that discrimination is severe and needs to be addressed; but their proposals are only for less discrimination for some, and they don’t consider the possibility of zero discrimination. 

Of course, Unlock will be pushing for any change that helps people with convictions, even small ones. Better is still better. But our real goal over the coming year or two as the paper moves forward is to push the Government to be bolder and less restricted in their thinking, and to deliver a criminal records system that works for everyone.  

Written by Sam Doohan, Unlock Policy Officer


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Scottish Government Reforms criminal record disclosure

The Scottish Government has passed a significant reform to their criminal records regime. The Scottish system is separate from the one that applies in England and Wales, and had fallen behind the rest of the UK after Westminster made significant updates in 2014.  

The reforms that Holyrood have now passed make for interesting reading. The Scottish reforms, which come into force in November, give an insight into how criminal records are seen inside government and should be seen as a barometer for the rest of the UK 

The new system does not just mirror England and Wales; It is broadly similar, but the changes are significant, especially when looked at in terms of the numbers of people who will be impacted. Note: the Ministry of Justice recently published a sentencing white paper, including proposed changes to the criminal records system in England and Wales.  

The changes in Scotland









The most important difference is that the lowest tier for disclosing custodial sentences in Scotland now cuts off at 12 months, not six months as in England and Wales. This makes a significant difference, because short sentences are the most common, and those between six and 12 months are just under 20% of the annual total.  

As a result, about 2,000 more people per year will fall into the two year disclosure period, instead of the four year period they would face in England and Wales. 80% of all custodial sentences in Scotland will now be in the lowest tier for disclosurecompared to 62% if they had adopted the same system as England and Wales.   

This change also impacts the kinds of offences which will fall into the shortest disclosure period. Twelve months is the maximum sentence that can be imposed by a magistrate (summary process by a sheriff in Scotland). This means that all custodial sentences imposed by will have the same disclosure regime, which is a much fairer approach 

Minor variations in sentencing between individual sheriffs or magistrates will not lead to multiple additional years of disclosure. There will still be discretion over sentence lengths, but not over how long they will be disclosed for. This also shows more joined up thinkingIt makes sense that the existing division between magistrates and crown court is reflected in the subsequent disclosure. 

Another major change is that the Scottish legislation will allow – eventually – for sentences over 4 years to become spent. This will not happen automatically, but the Scottish government have committed to creating a review process to determine when, or if, they can become spent.  

This is a significant shift in position, and it is the first attempt in the UK to handle these more serious convictions on a case by case basis. While longer sentences are less frequent overall, the current requirement to disclose indefinitely means they impact people for decades, regardless of how much they have moved on. The ability to review a conviction and have it become spent is much fairer than blanket rules.   

We do not know what that review process will look like, or even necessarily the criteria that will be used, so there are still some hurdles to overcome. We are particularly concerneabout the resources that will be available, because this will hugely impact how effective that system can be. However, this is still a big move in principle, and we hope it will be as meaningful in practice. 

These changes are not huge in legislative terms, but they will make a major difference to a large number of people. 22% of annual sentences in Scotland will have a fairer disclosure regime than in England and Wales. 2,500 people per year will have a more positive future because of a more progressive criminal records system, with easier access to employment and education, and fair access to insurance. 

How does this impact England and Wales? 

It is very encouraging for our reform work in Westminster that Holyrood has made this move. We can see that political and government circles are interested in a more progressive approach, and that they do see the positives associated with a less draconian system 

Once the Scottish system is in action it will provide a continuous stream of data showing the impact that reducing disclosure has in numerous different ways. If the figures show lower reoffending and improved employment, as the Scottish government believes they will, this will be powerful evidence for making similar changes in England and Wales.  

Equally, the Scottish Government has shown that the arguments that Unlock is making in Westminster do impact policy decisions. The Scottish Justice minister, Humza Yousaf, said: Progressive changes to disclosure allow people to move on with their lives into employment, [and are] proven to reduce the likelihood of further offending. As a result, these changes] help keep crime down and communities safe.”  

These are exactly the arguments that Unlock make, and it is very positive to see officials citing these benefits as the reason for reducing disclosurestance taken further, especially for intermediate-length sentences where Scotland will largely mirror the wider UK. 

In the coming year, our calls to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act will certainly be strengthened by the Scottish reformsThe arrival of new legislation will shine a spotlight on the regime in England and Wales, and help to break the inertia, as well as providing real world dataUnlock will be building from Scotland’s example to deliver a truly fair criminal record system that works for everyone.  

Get involved 

Join the FairChecks movement, and call on the government to reform criminal records checking in England and Wales. 

Written by Sam Doohan, Unlock Policy Officer 


More information 

Unlock’s response to Ministry of Justice plans to make reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

Commenting on today’s announcement (16 September) by the Ministry of Justice on plans to make changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the disclosure of criminal records, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said: 

Unlock very much welcomes and supports today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary that disclosure periods for criminal records will be reduced. If these proposals proceed to statute, it will mean more people with criminal records being able to get jobs and make a positive contribution to society. The current criminal records disclosure system does little to promote rehabilitation or serve public protection, but it does result in people being locked out of jobs and opportunities, often for the rest of their life, because of a criminal record that serves as a second sentence. 

England and Wales has one of the most punitive criminal record disclosure regimes in Europe – and there’s no evidence that it’s reducing crime. Getting people with convictions into work, supporting their families and contributing to the economy is one of the best ways of making communities safer. Evidence shows that more than half of men, and three quarters of women who receive a conviction, will never be convicted again.  

Today’s announcement that some sentences of over four years in prison will no longer have to be disclosed when applying for most jobs if people are conviction-free seven years after completing their sentence is a positive step forward. We have long campaigned for a system that enables all convictions to become ‘spent’ at some point. For those that these proposals apply to, once they have completed their rehabilitation period they will no longer be required to disclose their conviction for most jobs or education courses, nor for housing or insurance. 

However, more than 8,000 people every year receive sentences of over four years and today’s proposals have wide-ranging exclusions which we understand will mean that around two-thirds of people sentenced to more than four years in prison will continue to have a lifelong ‘never spent’ conviction 

The risk of reoffending is consistently lower for those who have served longer sentences, and data on reoffending by index offence shows sexual and violent offences have lower rates of reoffending than many other categories. Exclusions by offence type risk creating unfairness and anomalies at the margins, further entrenching racial injustice and embedding the idea that some people are inherently incapable of rehabilitation. We do not believe that to be the case.  

We have long-supported Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill, and the proposals in that Bill are a pragmatic attempt to see positive change, given the rehabilitation periods for adults were recommended in the Breaking the Circle report in 2003, and accepted by the government of the time. The proposals today fall short by comparison 

Making changes so that more people have their convictions become spent sooner is a positive change. However, there is little point in having more people reach this stage if employers can continue to discriminate. There are fundamental questions as to how effective the legislation is in a society where information remains online and employers regularly ask about spent convictions even if they are not entitled to know about them. 

The government needs to make sure that the legislation does what it is intended to do – give people a chance to live free from the stigma of their past. Today’s proposals do nothing to address these issues, which is why we continue to call for a root-and-branch review of the criminal records regime.  

Everyone should have the opportunity to unleash their potential and make a positive contribution to society. Everyone should have the opportunity of a fresh start. We hope the government will listen and make sure that law-abiding people with convictions have a real chance to move on with their lives without their criminal record hanging over them. 



For media enquiries, please contact Ruth Davies, Digital and Communications Manager. Email or call 07458 393 194 

Notes to editors 

  • Unlock is an independent, award-winning national charity that provides a voice and support for people with convictions who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence.   
  • High-resolution images for media use are available from Unlock’s Flickr account. 
  • Spent convictions can still be disclosed for jobs working with children or vulnerable adults, or in some trusted professions. What shows up on standard and enhanced DBS checks is determined by the filtering rules. 


Case studies  

Below are case studies of individuals where their conviction will remain a lifelong ‘never spent’ conviction because their offences are excluded under the proposals by the Ministry of Justice. 

Case study – Ian 

Ian joined his well-known firm in the early 1990s when few employers asked about criminal records. Over the years he developed his skills and now managed the office, earning a good salary. 

In 2019, the firm introduced new HR systems and retrospectively carried out basic DBS checks on all staff. Ian had been sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in the 1980s for his involvement in an armed robbery. Ian explained this to his employer, hopeful that his 25 years of service and exemplary work record would stand him in good stead. Despite this, the firm let Ian go – they said they couldn’t risk anyone finding out that one of their employees had an unspent conviction. Ian is claiming JSA while he looks for work.  

Case study – Amir 

At 17 Amir was convicted, under joint enterprise, for a serious assault on a man. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison. On release, he moved with his family to a new area and completed qualifications in business and IT. Amir eventually started a small business from home doing computer repairs and providing training.  

Now 29, Amir applied for a job in the training department of one of the big four accounting firms. After a telephone interview, assessment centre and face-to-face interview Amir was selected over the 18 other candidates. On receiving the offer, Amir disclosed his unspent conviction. The HR manager told him someone would be in touch. After three months of waiting, Amir contacted the UK Director of HR who said the company had a policy of not employing anyone with an unspent conviction. 

Case study – Anne 

Anne was convicted of the manslaughter of her husband and sentenced to 7 years. At her trial it was accepted that she was suffering from a psychiatric condition resulting from her husband’s abusive behaviour over two decades. Anne is out of prison now and volunteers as a speaker for a charity that supports victims of domestic abuse. 

Anne has applied for part-time work at a supermarket and a high street retailer but has been turned down both times because of her unspent conviction. She felt the interviewers were sympathetic when she disclosed but afterwards was told it was ‘company policy’ not to employ anyone with an unspent conviction. 

Reforming the criminal records disclosure regime – Have you a sentence of over 4 years in prison?

We’ve published an updated briefing on reforming the criminal records disclosure regime and we want to hear from you if you have a conviction that can never become spent.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) means that most convictions can become spent after a period of years. Changes implemented in 2014 (through focused mainly on reducing rehabilitation periods. However, the current law means more than 8000 people every year receive sentences that mean they can never be legally rehabilitated and will have to declare them for the rest of their life – on job applications, for housing or insurance.

A never spent conviction is a lifelong barrier to moving on. We think this should change and that’s we we’re campaigning for ROA reform. As part of our campaign, we use case studies to show why reform is necessary to help law abiding people with convictions move on.

What we need from you

If you have a conviction that can never become spent (i.e. a prison sentence of over 4 years), please contact us at using the subject header ‘Call for evidence: ROA reform’. Please include:

  • Your name
  • Your date of birth
  • Contact details (email and/or telephone) and how you’d like us to contact you
  • The details of all your cautions/convictions including dates and a DBS certificate if you have one
  • The difficulties you’ve faced, recently or in the past, as a result of your criminal record not becoming spent
  • If you would be willing to contribute to any media coverage on this issue in future (this is for our reference, we won’t share your details without consent)

Any information you provide will be kept in line with our confidentiality policy. Any personal information provided to us will not be shared externally without your consent.

Find out more about how we handle your data

Find out more about our work on ROA reform.

What is the rationale behind the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974?

In a week where the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, said that he was preparing a policy that looked at making changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA), we’re pleased to publish a paper by Dr Andrew Henley (Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Nottingham) on the rationale behind that piece of legislation.

The paper draws on the research conducted for Dr Henley’s doctoral thesis which examined the conception, passage and contestation of the ROA. Sections of this thesis were based on original archival research and Hansard records which were used to understand the rationale behind the ROA and the motivations of its sponsors.  It is revealed that whilst the architects of the ROA were mindful of the need for exemptions to its provisions, their motives were primarily compassionate and humanitarian, and concerned with the welfare of those who had successfully ‘lived down’ their convictions. They were also concerned with the fact that, in the early 1970s, the UK was out of step with international norms in not having a rehabilitation law.

The paper concludes that the principle of ‘spent convictions’ is now well-established and has been for nearly half a century. Any Government seeking to expanding arrangements so that more people with convictions can benefit from their record becoming ‘spent’ should face an easier task than the original proposers of the ROA given that exemptions to its effect are also well-established on safeguarding ground.  However, it would be quite wrong to reframe the original rationale of the ROA as being about ‘striking a balance’ between protecting the public or businesses from recidivist crime versus the rights of people with convictions to ‘live down’ their past offending.  Concerns with public protection played only a relatively small part in the debates which circulated around the legislation during its passage, given that there was always an intention to include exemptions to the effect of the law for these purposes.  The ROA is, therefore, better understood as motivated by humanitarian concerns and with the need for legislation in the UK to keep pace with that in other countries.

Download the paper here.

Blog – The impact of our disclosure calculator and helping the Ministry of Justice to develop one

It’s about a decade since we first started work on developing an online tool to help people work out if they need to tell employers and others about their criminal record.

It was around 2009 when we started to receive an increasing number of calls to our helpline from people wanting to know if – and when – their convictions became ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. This was at a time when the Disclosure and Barring Service didn’t issue basic checks, so it was difficult for people to get this answer from the government. As a small charity with limited resources, and given many people felt uncomfortable ringing up and providing sensitive personal details over the phone, we knew there was a better solution.

The concept was simple – an online tool that worked this out. Ultimately, our aim was that as many people as possible could get instant results online to the question “when does my criminal record become spent”.

In practice, it was a lot more difficult than that. The law is complicated, and so after a lot of hard work, we launched in October 2011, having had a small grant from a foundation to develop it. We were pleased to have Lord McNally, who was the Minister of State for the Ministry of Justice at the time, speak at the launch event. He congratulated Unlock on “achieving what some previously considered impossible”.

It’s been going for over 8 years now, and over 200,000 people have used the calculator in the last 4 years alone. Roughly 55% of users find that all their convictions are spent, with about 40% getting results with some unspent convictions. Perhaps most notably, about 5% of users get a result that means their conviction will remain unspent for the rest of their life.

The calculator itself has been through several phases of development – initially, you had to ‘login’ to use the tool, but we soon realised this was a barrier to use and once we removed this, the number of uses increased significantly. For a long time we also had a way for organisations to set up ‘multiple use’ accounts, because we know many organisations (like probation service providers and employment support organisations) find the tool an important way for their teams to support individuals in working out what they do and don’t need to disclose. This was also an important way for Unlock to cover the costs of maintaining the tool. We also put a lot of time into adjusting the tool in early 2014 so that it was in line with the positive reforms that were made as to when convictions became spent, which came into effect on the 10th March 2014.

We’re pleased that the tool is now fully open to anyone to use. We know that a huge range of organisations – employers, insurers, universities – use the tool, and we know from the feedback that people with criminal records (who remain by far the biggest user group) value being able to use a tool that’s hosted by an independent charity.

We’d never have developed the tool if one like it had already existed, and ever since we launched the tool, we’ve constantly tried to push the government to do more to make sure that people can understand if and when their convictions become spent. We’ve always thought that, while there’s many benefits to an independent charity like Unlock having a tool like this, it’s also important that the government did more to help people with this.

In 2017, the Justice Committee published a report on their inquiry into the disclosure of youth criminal records, which Unlock had been heavily involved in. In the government’s response to this, there was a commitment to “updating guidance for ex-offenders on to ensure that it is clear, consistent and easily accessible.”

So we’re pleased that the Ministry of Justice has been developing a tool to help people understand whether they need to disclose their criminal record. They are now seeking feedback on a ‘disclosure checker’, which they’re currently piloting. As it stands, the disclosure checker is far from the finished product – for example, it can only calculate single convictions at the moment and doesn’t cover motoring offences – but we’ve been contributing to its development from an early phase, and we’re continuing to support it so that it can be as effective as possible.

As with using our calculator, it’s important that practitioners, especially those tasked with helping individuals with disclosing criminal records don’t simply use tools like this as a replacement for providing specific information and advice – for example, probation providers have it in their contract to provide one-to-one support on this. So it’s important that practitioners continue to develop the skills and knowledge to be able to sit down and support individuals so that they understand the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and what it means to them.

There’s also an important question as to what extent a calculator is the right solution. The law is complex, and any calculator is only as good as the information put into it. Unlock doesn’t have access to police records so that was the only way it could run for us, but for the government, who can check police records, there’s an argument that there’s a better approach. Rather than having people work through a tool that relies on the information they put into it, instead the government could simply issue some form of free criminal record check which showed any current unspent convictions (like the current basic DBS check) but then also gave dates for when those convictions will become spent. This would overcome many of the issues that come with an online tool.

Looking back on our calculator, charities like Unlock innovate in spaces like this, but we also recognise our aim – we want as many people as possible to get instant results online to the question “when does my criminal record become spent”. It’s perhaps disappointing that it’s taken the government nearly a decade to get around to doing this themselves, and perhaps there’s a better way for the government to help people find out the answer to this important question. We’ll continue to work the government to try to improve people’s understanding on if and when their criminal record is spent.

More information

  1. We have posted on our hub about the MoJ’s disclosure checker and then at the end there’s an option to provide feedback.
  2. You can use our calculator at

Blog – Join the #FairChecks movement to help get a fresh start for the criminal records system

In the 1960s, when Richard was 16, he was found in possession of a small amount of cannabis. He was prosecuted for possession and given a one-year conditional discharge. As a student a few years later, Richard got into trouble again and was convicted of taking an item of food from a warehouse where he worked stacking shelves. He was given a one-year conditional discharge and put the mistake behind him.

After fifty years of good behaviour, a productive career and many positions of responsibility, Richard believed his record was clear. He was approaching seventy when his son wanted to join a choir and as a dad, Richard needed an enhanced DBS check. He suddenly discovered that the police were still listing his youthful mistakes as criminal convictions. Richard feels he is being punished for things that happened decades ago.

When you look at this record, it looks dreadful. But I was never really the drug taking thief that it suggests – I was a young person who made a couple of silly mistakes. But it’s harder than you would ever believe to correct the impression this record creates, even though no-one apart from me knows or should care about what happened over forty years ago.”

Because of this “new” old record, Richard had to go through the shame and embarrassment of disclosing a criminal record that was older than some of the panel considering his case. He feels unable to apply for third sector work he would like to do. He believes he is being prevented from contributing to society in a way the justice system never intended.

“I thought that conditional discharges were invented to help people get back on track – but since the invention of the CRB/DBS, people like me are shackled with old records they cannot get deleted. This creates a problem that never goes away. We have lost faith in the capacity of people to learn from their mistakes and to change for the better.”

Around one in six people in England & Wales have a criminal record. Whether it resulted in a prison sentence or a fine, a criminal record can be disclosed on a standard or enhanced criminal record check for the rest of their life. Even a minor criminal history produces lifelong barriers that can block reintegration and participation in society. The vast majority of people won’t have been to prison, and many don’t even realise they still have a criminal record until they apply for a new job or volunteer role that involves a standard or enhanced criminal record check.

People like Richard must declare their convictions if they want to be a traffic warden or taxi driver aged 50.  A person can change quickly, particularly when they are young, but their criminal record remains.

Our current criminal records disclosure regime prevents people from achieving their full potential. It can be particularly crippling for employment, with 75% of employers discriminating against applicants because of a criminal record, and 50% of employers saying they would not recruit offenders or ex-offenders. The stigma attached means that if a conviction or caution is revealed, people often don’t get the chance to explain how they have turned their life around.

An increasing number of employers require DBS checks, and we know that many convictions and cautions that are revealed on these checks can be from many years, sometimes decades, ago. For example, research published by Unlock in 2018 showed that in the previous 5 years, over 1 million criminal records that related to offences from more than 30 years ago (when the person involved was between the ages of 10-25) were disclosed on standard or enhanced criminal record checks.

This happens without any good evidence that shows disclosing criminal records makes society safer. What the evidence does show is that time-passed is a key indicator – research from the US academic Karl Hanson shows that after 10 years offence-free (5 years for children), the risk presented by most individuals with a criminal record is not meaningfully different from that of the general population This begs the question why so many convictions from so many years ago keep on being disclosed on DBS checks.

In January 2019, the Supreme Court gave its judgment in an important case that Unlock intervened in. The case focused on the rules that determine what gets disclosed on standard and enhanced DBS checks. The Supreme Court ruled that two aspects of the rules are disproportionate and in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government has yet to properly respond to this ruling.

The inclusion of old and minor offences on DBS checks carried out for employment and volunteering opportunities remains the single biggest issue that people contact Unlock about. This ultimately comes down to the rules (known as ‘filtering’ rules) that determine what gets revealed and what comes off a standard or enhanced check. Working to change the rules has been one of our priority areas for a number of years.

That’s why, together with Transform Justice, Unlock has set up the #FairChecks movement. The #FairChecks movement has been launched to advocate for reform of our outdated criminal records regime. We would like the government to reduce the length of time a record is revealed and remove out of date information from DBS checks. And we are asking MPs to get the government to work out how to do this by launching a major review of the legislation on the disclosure of criminal records. If you are interested in reforming the criminal records system so that everybody can fulfil their potential, visit where you can join the movement and write to your local MP.

‘Double discrimination?’ report published

Today we’ve published research on the impact of criminal records as perceived by people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

New data in the report, Double discrimination?, shows that over three-quarters of people surveyed (78%) felt their ethnicity made it harder for them to overcome the problems they faced as a result of having a criminal record. The overwhelming majority (79%) experienced problems gaining employment; these persisted over many years and affected all age groups. African and Caribbean people were most affected.

The full report can be downloaded: Double discrimination? Full report (Unlock, July 2019). An executive summary can also be downloaded: Double discrimination? Executive summary

Read our press release for the launch of the report.

This work is part of our Unlocking Experience project.

Unlock comment: Ministry of Justice plans on criminal record reform

Commenting on today’s announcement (15 July) by the Ministry of Justice on plans to make changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:

“Unlock very much welcomes and supports today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary. If his commitment proceeds to statute, it will mean more people with criminal records being able to get jobs and make a positive contribution to society. The current criminal records disclosure regime does little to promote rehabilitation or serve public protection, but it does result in people being locked out of jobs and opportunities, often for the rest of their life, because of a criminal record that serves as a second sentence.

“England and Wales has one of the most punitive criminal record disclosure regimes in Europe – and there’s no evidence that it’s reducing crime. Getting people with convictions into work, supporting their families and contributing to the economy is one of the best ways of making communities safer. Evidence shows that more than half of men, and three quarters of women who receive a conviction, will never be convicted again. That is why we have long campaigned for a system that enables all convictions to become ‘spent’ at some point.

“This would enable more people that have received prison sentences of over 4 years to reach the stage, after a period of living crime-free, where their criminal record becomes ‘spent’, and for many others enable their conviction to become spent much sooner than at present, within a proportionate, evidence informed timeframe. This means they will no longer be required to unnecessarily disclose it for most jobs or education courses, nor for housing or insurance.

“However, there is little point in having more people reach this stage if employers can continue to discriminate. There are fundamental questions as to how effective the legislation is in a society where information remains online and employers regularly ask about spent convictions even if they are not entitled to know about them. The government needs to make sure that the legislation does what it is intended to do – give people a chance to live free of the stigma of their past. We urge the government to use this opportunity to do that work, and we look forward to working with them so that law-abiding people with convictions have a real chance to move on positively with their lives without their criminal record hanging over them.”


  1. We understand that the plans are focused on the Ministry of Justice making changes to Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which sets out the time periods for which criminal records become ‘spent’, at which point they are not disclosed on basic criminal record checks. It is important to note that once convictions become spent, they are not wiped from police records, and they remain available for disclosure when applying for work in certain roles such as becoming a solicitor (which involves a standard DBS check) or roles involving children or vulnerable groups (which involve an enhanced DBS checks).
  2. Find out more about our policy work on reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
  3. The government is yet to respond to the Supreme Court judgment from January of this year. That ruling is focused on the rules that determine what is disclosed (or filtered) from standard and enhanced criminal record checks.


New report highlights ‘double discrimination’ faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic people with a criminal record

Unlock, the country’s leading charity for people with convictions, has today published research on the impact of criminal records as perceived by people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

New data in the report, Double discrimination?, shows that over three-quarters of people surveyed (78%) felt their ethnicity made it harder for them to overcome the problems they faced as a result of having a criminal record. The overwhelming majority (79%) experienced problems gaining employment; these persisted over many years and affected all age groups. African and Caribbean people were most affected.

Commenting on the report, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:

“The discrimination faced by people with a criminal record who are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background may not be ‘double’, but the difficulties they face are certainly cumulative. The perceptions of many people we surveyed were that the criminal record disclosure rules caused them more problems because, had they been white, they may not have been prosecuted, or the sentence they received would have been lower and therefore ‘spent’ earlier.

“These perceptions are borne out by other evidence that shows how the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts on people from some BAME groups because of over-criminalisation and harsher treatment. Put simply, ethnicity impacts on the type of criminal record someone gets. The disclosure regime exacerbates problems faced by people already treated more harshly at all stages in the criminal justice system.

“Black and Asian defendants have consistently been given the longest average custodial sentence length since 2012. Harsher sentences take longer to become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, if they ever do, meaning a criminal record will cause more difficulties for longer. This is an additional penalty for Black and Asian defendants. What David Lammy refers to as the double penalty can in fact be a triple penalty – the ethnic penalty, the criminal penalty and then the disclosure penalty.

“Ethnicity is often a visible characteristic to employers, but a criminal record is not. This means that, while tackling ethnicity-based discrimination requires a certain set of responses, tackling conviction-based discrimination needs a different set of responses. For example, minimising, or delaying, the use of criminal records, may benefit BAME groups in particular but would result in a much fairer system for everyone. The Lammy recommendations to address ethnic disproportionality must continue, but in the meantime simple changes to the disclosure regime can help level the playing field.

“We urge the government to take forward our recommendations, including to carry out a fundamental review of the criminal records regime and to implement reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, including reducing the time before convictions become spent and expanding the scope of legislation so that all convictions can become spent.”

In the foreword to the report, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and chair of the Lammy Review, writes:

“Those who experience our criminal justice system, above all, need a different future to aspire to, but our criminal records regime is holding them back. Employers, universities, housing providers and even insurers, can and do discriminate against those who disclose this information. This is an issue for all people with a criminal record whatever their ethnic background. However, this report by Unlock demonstrates that our criminal records system disproportionately discriminates against those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Already facing discrimination when applying for employment, the barriers that BAME individuals face are solidified and compounded by our arcane criminal record process. This report shines a light on BAME individuals’ experiences of post-conviction problems – tied to the past and facing multiple disadvantage. I continue to urge the government to reflect hard on the impact of a criminal records regime that traps people in unemployment, contributes to high rates of recidivism and creates a double penalty for minorities. It’s time for urgent reform.”

Iqbal Wahhab OBE, chair of EQUAL, which focuses on action for race equality in the criminal justice system, said:

“When people of  BAME backgrounds make up 26% of the prison population yet 14% of the wider population, when young black men can be twice as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population, when people of BAME backgrounds are significantly more likely to receive custodial sentences than their white counterparts and when every level of ethnic disproportionality in the criminal and legal justice system has risen since the Lammy report, we are facing a huge challenge to any claim that we live in a fair society. The problems are only getting bigger. The recommendations in Unlock’s report are essential steps that need to be taken to reverse these troubling trends. We keep hearing that companies with more diverse workforces perform better than those that haven’t. Employers need to be brought into these conversations more to become part of the solution whilst enhancing the performance of their own organisations as well as that of wider society at the same time.

“The ethnic penalty in employment is well documented and we welcome the evidence in Unlock’s report which shows the biggest challenge for BAME individuals post-conviction is securing employment. The government needs to do more to help BAME people overcome ethnic and conviction bias in the labour market. EQUAL supports Unlock’s call for the government to conduct a fundamental review of the wider criminal records disclosure regime.”

Sara Llewellin, CEO of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, said:

“The Barrow Cadbury Trust is proud to support the work of Unlock. This report into the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic people living with criminal records is eye-opening. David Lammy MP in his 2017 review on racial disproportionality called for changes to our criminal records regime. The data and personal testimony in this report lend more weight to that long-running debate on what those changes would look like, and the urgent need to reform the disclosure system to enable individuals to access education and employment opportunities.”


  1. Unlock is an independent, award-winning national charity that provides a voice and support for people with convictions who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence. 
  2. There are over 11 million people in the UK that have a criminal record.
  3. Unlock’s website is
  4. High-resolution images for media use are available from Unlock’s Flickr account.
  5. The full report is available here. An executive summary is available here.
  6. Black and Asian defendants have consistently had the longest average custodial sentence length since 2012. As set out on page 58 of the Ministry of Justice (2016) Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2016.

Comments from survey respondents

An Indian man, now aged 36-45. He was convicted 10 years ago for 6 counts of theft and given a community sentence. He said: “There is already conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace, it’s a widely reported phenomenon. The combination of the conviction has made it worse. In the NHS where I work bullying and discrimination are rife, and made that much worse due to my ethnicity.”

An African man, aged 56-65. He got two convictions 40 years ago for shoplifting and fined for both. He said: “My experience is that BAME people are more heavily policed and (at least in the past) are put under pressure to admit to offences whether they committed them or not. Also, a bigger proportion of BAME people are socially disadvantaged. That means there is a higher risk of delinquency and convictions as children. I have been plagued by the fact that my convictions will never be spent as far as Civil Service vetting is concerned. I really don’t think a shoplifting conviction from the 1970s as a child should have remained on my record when I became an adult and started my career. They also led to me being refused visas for the USA and stopped me getting a second nationality (of my wife).”

An Indian woman, aged 46-55. She received one conviction 4 years ago for benefit fraud and sentenced to prison. She said: “The Indian community turned their back on me and I feel isolated. My house insurance was terminated. The cost of car and new house insurance increased. A loss of self-esteem stops me from applying for jobs. I don’t know where to find jobs which do not require a DBS. I can’t pass credit checks for private rented sector housing. People from the community avoid me so I am isolated and suffer from serious mental health issues. I live in poverty and risk of homelessness. I’ve had serious health issues linked to stress.”

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