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Category: Unlock publications

Unlock Annual Report 2019-20

We are delighted to publish the Unlock Annual Report 2019-20.

Compiling our report this year was quite a task as we had so much to say about our work and achievements – from developing our trustee board to supporting volunteers, and from providing direct support to individuals to fighting for system change and a society that lets people move on from their past.

It was a remarkable year with many successes despite the arrival of Covid-19. The impact of the pandemic was mitigated as far as possible and we quickly adapted to remote working and continued delivery of our work. Without doubt, people with criminal records now face additional challenges as jobs are lost and new ones hard to find when disclosing a conviction so often means rejection.

For some 45,000 people this will at least be made easier by the change to the ‘filtering rules’ on 28 November, meaning that for jobs and voluntary roles that involve a standard or enhanced criminal record check issued by the Disclosure and Barring Service, childhood cautions will no longer be disclosed, and a rule that meant someone with more than one conviction had all their convictions disclosed, regardless of offence or length of time, has been abolished.

For people who have been held back from employment and volunteering to help others because of mistakes they made years ago, the impact will be life changing.  Unlock along with others have long campaigned for this, fighting the government all the way to the Supreme Court. Many people have written to us to express what it means to them:

“I’ve spent the morning in tears because I’m so overjoyed… I will be forever grateful to Unlock and you for helping me. I cannot believe that from next week I will be able to apply for teaching jobs without the worry of dragging up my childhood traumas… Good luck with the continued fight for a better justice system.” 

 “I would just like to say a huge thank you to everyone there for the life changing work that you all do. You may never fully know just what an impact your work has on peoples’ lives. I will be forever grateful to you and thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

There’s much more work to be done to further reform disclosure law along with the other vital work we carry out to enable people to live their best lives. 2020-21 promises to be another busy year ahead.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support, faith and generosity of our funders, donors and volunteers, to whom we extend our sincere gratitude.

Thank you for taking the time to read our 2019-20 annual report

Julie Harmsworth

Criminal records: a comparison between England and Israel

We know that in the UK, people with criminal records can face stigma, discrimination and barriers which prevent them from being able to move on from their past and make a positive contribution to society. These barriers most commonly relate to employment, but people with convictions can also find themselves locked out of volunteering, access to housing and insurance.

Independent researcher Dana Segev wanted to look at how things could be done differently; in her article published by Unlock, she compares the treatment of people with convictions in England and Israel.

Download the article

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 – Looking to the future: incentivising employment of people with convictions

It’s fair to say 2020 has been a year of major change – and we’re only halfway through. Whether you’ve been adapting to home working, learning a new skill, or embracing your natural hair, we’re all dealing with change. That can be challenging but there’s a sense that this moment is a portal to the future.

Unlock’s helpline receives calls every day from people who want to change their future by applying for a new job, or a promotion. No matter what skills, qualifications or experience they have, they know that once they tick the box to say they have a conviction, there’s a good chance they’ll never hear from the employer again. Sometimes people get as far as the interview before being told ‘oh no, you can’t work here – we’ve got a policy about that’.

This week, Unlock have published a briefing calling on the government to use financial incentives to improve employment prospects for people with convictions.

There are more than 11 million people in the UK with a criminal record. Most have never been to prison and most will never commit another crime. Yet 75% of companies admit discriminating against applicants who declare a criminal record. In a 2016 survey, 32% of employers had concerns about this group’s skills and capability, 45% were concerned they would be unreliable and 40% were worried about the public image of their business.

These might seem reasonable concerns – but they’re just not accurate. Employers who pro-actively recruit people with convictions report positive experiences. Polling from 2019 shows that 81% of employers say hiring people with criminal records had a positive impact on their business, while 75% of consumers would buy from a business that hired people with convictions.

Exclusion from the job market has a significant effect not just on individuals and their families but also their communities. People from some ethnic backgrounds – particularly Black and Gypsy, Roma, Traveller – are over-represented in the justice system and face this additional barrier when looking for work.

Keeping people out of the work place because of a criminal record is unnecessary – and it’s expensive. People with convictions want to support themselves and their families, but unemployment has a scarring effect that can last a lifetime. Reoffending costs £18bn a year but targeted opportunities just for people leaving prison could reduce that by around 10%.

Financial incentives can be a powerful force for change. In Belgium, subsidies have improved employment prospects for disabled people, while a 2018 study in the US found that 80% of employers said a tax credit on a worker’s wages would encourage them to hire someone with a conviction.

None of us can predict what the future will bring but it’s going to need a collective effort. The more people in work, the quicker the economy can recover. Do we want to live in a country that excludes people because of their background, or one that sees what people have to offer and gives them a chance?

Download the briefing here.

Contact us for more information.




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 Annual Report 2017/2018








We are delighted to publish the Unlock Annual Report 2017/2018.

We have achieved outstanding success at both service delivery and policy levels, reflecting the hard work and dedication of the Unlock team.

The report reflects how we have helped people with convictions by:

  • Providing direct support to individuals through our helpline and case work
  • Providing online support through our information hub, disclosure calculator tool, magazine, forum, and news/ update subscriber service
  • Operating a volunteering scheme to train people with convictions as helpline peer-advisors
  • Running training courses on criminal record disclosure for statutory, contracted, and voluntary service providers and practitioners who themselves support people with convictions.

We also report on the work we have undertaken to:

  • Challenge employment discrimination by working with employers to improve their policies and practices, and working with government departments and agencies to challenge the way they operate
  • Influence government, employers and others through evidenced research, consultations, strategic litigation, media work and campaigns.

None of this would be possible without the support, faith and generosity of our funders, donors and volunteers, to whom we extend our sincere gratitude.

You can download the Unlock Annual Report for the year ended 31st March 2018 here

New good practice resources for higher education providers

The piece below has been published as part of new good practice resources for universities, published by UCAS, which Unlock has supported.

Unlock very much welcomes the removal of the main criminal conviction box from the UCAS application. Having worked with higher education providers for a number of years, the previous approach presented a barrier to individuals with a criminal record, and the decision by UCAS is a significant change that has the potential to help many people with convictions see higher education as a positive way forward in their lives. Unlock has seen first-hand how people have been put off from applying to university as a result of the box on application forms.

With the changes that UCAS has announced, the higher education sector now has a unique opportunity to question whether criminal records should feature at all when deciding whether someone should be accepted onto a university course. If universities are committed to widening participation, they should be considering the widest number of potential applicants. The change by UCAS provides a strong signal to universities that criminal records should not feature in their assessment of academic ability. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices.

When you look at who actually has a criminal record, you can see how there are real benefits to universities in being open and inclusive towards people with a criminal record.

  1. There are large numbers of people with convictions who could potentially be admitted to university who are not because they are being deterred from applying. The numbers of prison-university partnerships are growing. Less than 10% of people with a criminal record go to prison, yet there are over 11 million people with a criminal record and approximately three-quarters of a million people with an unspent criminal record.
  2. This issue should be seen through the lens of widening participation, which remains at the forefront of government policy in higher education. People of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background are disproportionately represented amongst those who are arrested and imprisoned; the racial disproportionality in the UK criminal justice system is actually greater than that in the US system. Just under three quarters of the prison population in England and Wales was from the white ethnic group. When compared to the general population, those who identified as BAME are over represented in the prison population; 13% in the general population compared to 26% in prison. People with convictions also often represent other groups who are disproportionately under-represented at university, including care leavers, people from low income households, mature students, people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and first-in-family. Nearly a quarter of people in prison (compared with 2% of the general population) have spent time in the care system as children.

People with convictions who are applying to university are showing a huge commitment to turning their lives around. As a society, we should be doing all that we can to support them. The opportunity to go to university can help people to move away from their criminal past, build careers and contribute positively to society. Their presence is also hugely beneficial to universities themselves, which gain highly committed students who help create a more diverse and inclusive learning environment.

Whether universities should ask at all

It’s important to understand why UCAS have dropped the need for applicants to disclose relevant unspent convictions; they recognised that the question at application stage could deter people from applying, and wanted to reaffirm that higher education is open to everyone.

In Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, universities don’t ask about criminal records. Most European universities do not ask, nor do Australian institutions. The 23 California state universities do not ask. The 64 State University of New York colleges and universities do not ask. Research from the US found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions led to a higher rate of crime on campus. It is also consistent with the ban the box campaign that is spreading amongst employers, removing the question about criminal records from job application forms.

How should universities respond to the change?

It is our view that the starting point should be that criminal records should not be a part of a university’s assessment of academic merit. The change by UCAS sends a strong signal to universities that they should not be collecting criminal records from all potential students at application stage, and we expect to see the majority of institutions decide not to ask about criminal records for admissions purposes for most courses. Criminal record disclosure (of, say, certain offences) may feature in other parts, like when applying for university accommodation, but that’s further down the line and a separate process to that of admissions with different considerations.

In considering concerns about people recently convicted of serious offences applying to universities and not having to declare whether they have a criminal record, this is where a key understanding of the role of others outside of universities is important, and Unlock has produced a separate briefing on understanding applicants with a criminal record.

For courses that involve enhanced criminal record checks, the briefing also looks at how universities should approach applicants that have a criminal record. There remains work to be done to ensure that there is a proportionate approach to assessing the relevance of the applicant’s criminal record and that the right decisions are reached. While it’s right that individuals should be aware of what future challenges they might encounter, universities shouldn’t be preventing them the opportunity to try.

Throughout all of this, universities need to have a strong, inclusive mindset with student support at the heart. Unless you are proactively including, you are probably accidentally excluding. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices. I hope to see a number of universities step forward and make changes to their processes following consideration of this good practice. Unlock will continue to work with UCAS and institutions to ensure fair admissions policies towards applicants with criminal records.

This was originally published in the Criminal convictions – Good practice guide, which is part of a wider set of resources published by UCAS.

Unlock submission on proposals to amend disclosure rules in Scotland

Unlock has made a submission to the Scottish Government in response to their call for views on the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill. The focus of our response is on Part 2 of the Bill – Disclosure of convictions.

Download Unlock’s submission.

New ’10 things about criminal records’ guide for employability professionals

February 2019 update – We have done some work to update the original guide and have now published a version 2 of the guide.

People with criminal records make up a sizeable proportion of the unemployed population – 33% of Job Seekers Allowance claimants have received a criminal record in the last ten years. For many, it can be their main barrier to employment; people with convictions are the least likely ‘disadvantaged group’ to be employed, with nearly three-quarters (73%) of people unemployed on release from prison.

We know that employability professionals provide a vital form of support to people in the community. Yet according to a recent government report, only 29% of prison leavers received advice on dealing with their criminal record from the Work Programme. Historically, they have had very little training on supporting their clients with the complex laws around criminal records and how to practically deal with disclosing their criminal record to employers and others.

That’s why we deliver training to employability professionals; so that we improve the quality of the support provided to people with criminal records. We know from the feedback that we get that the training is high-quality and relevant to their work.

That’s also why we’ve recently worked with the Institute of Employability Professionals (IEP) and today have published a ’10 things about criminal records’ guide aimed specifically at employability professionals.

The guide is designed for practitioners that support people with criminal records into employment, including employability professionals, job centre advisors, careers advisors and probation officers.

The guide is available to download and forms part of IEP’s range of ’10 things’ guides. We hope it serves as a useful introduction and reference point for employability professionals. It provides an overview of the key areas, following a similar structure to that taken by our ‘Advising with Convictions’ one-day training course.

Our training courses are regularly run in London. Places can be booked online. In-house training sessions for larger teams are also available; if you’re interested in learning more, details are available online or you can email

Useful links

  1. The ’10 things about criminal records’ guide is available to download.

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