Angela Cairns shares her reflections on her first few months as Unlock CEO. Continue reading “What gets me up in the morning? It’s about people”
Category: Unlock’s blog
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.
Looking back at 2020 – A month-by-month review of developments for people with criminal records
With Christmas nearly here and 2020 coming to an end, it’s a good time to reflect on the last 12 months and some of the key moments for people with criminal records.
It’s certainly been a year like no other, but once again it’s been an incredibly busy year for Unlock, with lots of positive news and progress that benefits people with cautions and convictions.
As you can see in the month-by-month developments below, there have been some major strides forwards in reforming the criminal records disclosure system. Changes introduced in November to which cautions and convictions show up on higher-level DBS checks will mean over 45,000 people a year will now have a clear DBS check and be free of the stigma of their past. And proposals by the Ministry of Justice to reduce some disclosure periods under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act are welcomed, although we are calling for the reforms to go further.
But it’s not all been positive either. There continue to be new and extended policies and practices that treat people with criminal records unfairly and punish people long after they’ve served their sentence. And at a time when many people have lost their jobs, now more than ever it’s vital that Unlock continues to work hard to provide support and a voice for people with criminal records, so the charity looks forward to yet another strong year in 2021 – please help Unlock to continue its vital work.
For the charity itself:
- We’ve continued to see large numbers of people accessing our helpline and websites looking for information, advice and support. Our helpline has responded to around 8,000 enquiries this year and our information site has again had over a million visitors, with around 50,000 using our disclosure calculator to work out when their convictions become spent.
- We were delighted to welcome some new members to our small team this year – Kathryn, our new fundraising manager – Sam, our new policy officer – and Ruth, our new digital and communications manager.
- And we were over the moon to win the award for ‘Outstanding national organisation’ at the Criminal Justice Alliance awards last month.
On a personal note, it was announced earlier this month that after 12 years at Unlock I will be moving on from the charity in early February to take up the role of Director of Support and Development at Clinks. It’s going to feel bittersweet for me to move on from Unlock but 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. The trustee board have decided to take this opportunity to recruit a CEO to help the charity deliver on its next phase of work, so keep an eye out for more details on this.
On a practical note, our helpline will be closed for the Christmas holidays from 4pm today (Friday 18 December) and will reopen at 10am on Tuesday 5 January 2020. Our information site has details on what to do if you have questions over the festive period.
In the meantime, on behalf of everyone at Unlock, I would like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year.
All the best,
Some key developments month-by-month
In January we launched, together with Transform Justice, the #FairChecks movement to help push for a fresh start for the criminal records system. We also launched a collaboration with the University of Nottingham with a funded PhD opportunity to carry out systematic and in-depth analysis of policy and practice around applicants with criminal records across UK universities. And a year after the UK’s highest court found current rules on criminal records checks breach human rights laws, Unlock, Liberty and Just for Kids Law denounced the Government for failing to fix this broken system.
In February we raised concerns as it was revealed that The Charity Commission has refused more than half of the applications it has received from people with criminal convictions who wish to serve as trustees or senior managers
In March the Department of Justice (DoJ) in Northern Ireland announced it was making changes to what is disclosed on standard and enhanced criminal record checks, in response to the Supreme Court ruling in January 2019.
In April we produced some new information which set out the latest information and advice on Covid-19 and how it impacts on those with a criminal record.
In May Nicola Collett, a PhD student at Keele University, wrote about how her research is progressing into the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood. (She also wrote another update in September)
In June co-director Christopher Stacey shared some thoughts on the current Black Lives Matter protests, the criminal justice system, racial discrimination and the impact of criminal records.
In July the government responded to Supreme Court ruling with plans to change criminal records disclosure regime. We also published a report that highlights potentially hundreds of unlawful criminal record checks by employers each year.
In August new guidance for taxi licensing authorities recommends exclusions for even minor convictions
In September we responded to Ministry of Justice plans to make reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. We also published a joint report with the Prison Reform Trust which found over half of employers would feel more confident hiring people with sexual convictions if they had access to management advice, or if they believed that the applicant wouldn’t reoffend.
In October we published new information on what you need to know if you are an EU citizen and have a criminal record
In November, after years of campaigning by Unlock, there was a momentous day for tens of thousands of people with old and minor criminal records. Changes to the law have come into effect, meaning many people will no longer have their old and minor cautions and convictions show up when they apply for jobs or voluntary roles that involve standard or enhanced DBS checks.
In December we published our full response to the government’s recent white paper proposing amendments to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. We also put out a call for evidence as we want to hear from people who were prosecuted for historic gay offences and who have not yet applied for a pardon. 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. We are hoping to show that the process of disregards and pardons is unfair and discriminatory.
A momentous day for tens of thousands of people with old and minor criminal records
Today is a momentous day for tens of thousands of people with old and minor criminal records.
The stigma and embarrassment of a criminal record means many people simply don’t apply for jobs or voluntary roles that would require them to disclose their old and minor convictions or cautions. It’s a toxic form of punishment to keep punishing people forever and far too people many are unnecessarily anchored to their past as a result.
That’s why today is such a big day. Changes to the law have come into effect, meaning tens of thousands of people every year will no longer have their old and minor criminal records show up when they apply for jobs or voluntary roles that involve standard or enhanced DBS checks .
There are two main changes to what convictions and cautions are removed from standard and enhanced DBS checks. These are referred to as the filtering rules.
The first change is that childhood cautions will no longer be automatically disclosed. Up until now, about 25,000 childhood cautions were disclosed every year, so this change will help thousands of people move on from minor things they did when they were a child.
The second change is that a so-called ‘multiple conviction rule’ is being abolished. This arbitrary rule had meant that people with more than one conviction on their record had them all disclosed, no matter what the offences were, and no matter how long ago they were, simply because there was more than one. From the experience of Unlock’s helpline, we know this rule had meant that lots of people with minor convictions from decades ago were still finding them showing up on their check. According to Home Office data, these changes will mean around 45,000 people a year will now have a clear standard or enhanced DBS check. But this estimate is based on people that had previously applied for checks – and given we know many people are simply put off applying through fear and embarrassment, the number that will benefit from these changes will be even higher still.
How we got here
It’s been a long road to get to this point. I was part of an independent panel that was set up back in 2010 to advise the Home Secretary on this issue, and the system of filtering that was brought in in 2013 made a difference to a lot of people, but we could see that there were problems, which is why we set about advocating for further change. When it was clear the government were resisting that, it took a number of legal challenges to get them to listen.
And being honest, it is hard to give the government much credit for bringing forward these changes. They have contested the legal cases all the way up to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. Unlock supported those various legal challenges, and formally intervened in the Supreme Court for the first time in our history, because of the significance of the case. The result was a landmark ruling against the government. Even then, it’s taken the government nearly two years to get to this point of actually making the changes.
But we are where we are, and I’m genuinely delighted for the thousands of people that have been in contact with us over the years waiting for changes like this to happen. It’s difficult to do justice to the struggles, shame and stigma that they have felt. Finally, today is the day when that injustice ends and many thousands of people will be free of the stigma of their past. For every one of you that benefits from today’s changes, I want to thank you for all of the support you have given to Unlock’s work on this over the years.
Unlock’s guidance for individuals and employers
The changes being made today are actually quite simple, but the rules around what gets disclosed on checks are still quite complicated, so it’s important that you find out what these changes mean for you. We’ve been busy working on updating our guidance for individuals and employers, and that is all available from this page of our website. You can:
- Read this brief guide that explains the changes in more detail
- Use this infographic to find out which convictions/cautions will show up on which type of DBS check
- If you have a criminal record, read our detailed guide for more information about the filtering system
- If you are an employer, read an update about what you need to know on Recruit!, our website for employers
The need for further reform
But there’s still a lot more to do. Despite today’s changes, we are still left with a criminal records system where many people with old and minor criminal records are shut out of jobs that they are qualified to do because of a mistake they made years ago. For example, Unlock research found that over a five year period, 380,000 checks contained childhood convictions, with nearly 3,000 checks including convictions from children aged just ten. Many of these childhood convictions will continue to be disclosed forever, despite today’s changes.
At a time when we’re facing significant economic uncertainty, people with criminal records are finding it harder than ever to find work. The government must commit to a wider review of the criminal records disclosure system to ensure all law-abiding people with criminal records are able to move on into employment and contribute to our economic recovery.
That’s why Unlock is continuing to call for a root and branch review of the criminal records system to reduce the length of time a record is revealed. Everyone should have the opportunity to achieve their potential and make a positive contribution to society. Everyone deserves the chance to build a good life. The #FairChecks site is a crucial way for you to show your MP that you support reform of the criminal record disclosure system.
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 for. This 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 cross–party 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 back. Even 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
- The Government’s White Paper
- Recent Scottish updates to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act
- Our campaign for reform
- Join the #FairChecks movement for disclosure reform
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 disclosure, compared 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 thinking. It 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 concerned about 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 disclosure. stance 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 reforms. The 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 data. Unlock will be building from Scotland’s example to deliver a truly fair criminal record system that works for everyone.
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
‘Anchoring, everlasting, uncertainty, resilience’: Researching the impact of criminal records acquired in youth
Nicola Collett, a PhD student at Keele University, is currently researching the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood. Here she blogs about some of her findings so far.
Almost three years into my PhD I am spending much of my time surrounded by scribbles, highlights and post-it-it-notes as I continue to draw together the key ‘themes’ and ideas which came out from the interviews I conducted. In a recent research update I shared that I had been to Ghent to present preliminary findings and ideas which this blog will discuss in more detail. The four themes I highlighted in this presentation are: ‘anchoring’, ‘everlasting’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘resilience’. Whilst the thesis is still a work in progress I hope this blog will help give some indication of the experiences captured in this research. Thank you again to those who took part and placed their trust in me.
“…it was a really traumatic erm period of time in my life so when I have to disclose it or talk about it not only I’ve got the actions of the things I’ve done wrong…I’ve got the erm context of it all as well…which for me feels worse it’s like…I don’t know a little bit re-tr- re-traumatising”
“…this caution had an effect on me for…years. Literally for years. You know…it caused me a lot of grief in the sense that I had to re-live that situation over and over again”
Throughout our lives we take part in interviews and assessments, fill in various different forms and go through an array of sorting processes designed to filtering people as they try to access different opportunities. This occurs in variety of life domains from employment and volunteering to insurance and travel. This has become a common often taken for granted feature of our lives. However, for several of my participants these processes can be emotionally harmful as they require not only the disclosure of a criminal record but further explanation of the context of their offending. This is the anchoring affect whereby individuals are emotionally drawn back to a time in their lives where they may have faced victimisation, trauma, addictions and other significant difficulties. It was explained to me that this experience of disclosure could be humiliating, embarrassing and felt to be deeply invasive.
“…it’s had an impact on my life when I thought it was done you know? I thought I’d I’d reinvented myself I’d left that life behind. I’ve I’ve done everythin’ since I’ve done volunteerin’ I’ve worked […] I came from nothin’ […] all I’ve done is jump through hurdles…for like ten years […] I’ve had a clean slate throughout uni nothin’s gone wrong but still…this is apparently the pinnacle of my life that should dictate where I can go”
The long-term enduring nature of a criminal record has been discussed by Unlock and other criminal record scholars and campaigners. Indeed, the everlasting effect of having interacted with the criminal justice system at a young age was something the majority of my participants discussed. Those in early adulthood shared how they felt nervous and lived with a degree of anxiety at the potential for their criminal record to resurface later in life. In contrast, those later in adulthood reflected back on how they had personally experienced the criminal record as everlasting, resurfacing after many years of it not being disclosed. There was a real sense of not being able to fully move on despite having developed maturity and grown older with more life experience.
“I think it’s always that thought I think it’s always there I think it’s always that… that thing in the back of ya mind… that it will stop ya from from future opportunities from travelling erm from future job prospects”
Linking very closely to the everlasting potential of having a historical youth record disclosed later in life is the third theme uncertainty. Due to the knowledge that their criminal record may resurface almost all my participants, even those who felt they had been successful thus far, acknowledged a degree of uncertainty over their future plans. Indeed, whilst individuals felt they had a degree of control over their lives and have found ways to access opportunities, there was an awareness of their vulnerability to external changes in law and policy. For some this uncertainty was only a slight concern whilst for others it was a significant issue causing them to worry about future romantic relationships, travel post-Brexit and the ability to attain and advance in employment. At the time of writing we are all living through increased uncertainty due to the global pandemic, and I am wondering how this might be affecting those with criminal records who may need to seek new employment. Life is truly unpredictable and the added layer of precariousness given by having a criminal record further complicates things.
“…the thing that I um you know I rate myself for is that fact that I I stood strong…and I persevered do you know what I mean?…I never I never like let it get me down”
Whilst much of this blog post has captured the negatives and difficulties associated with living with a criminal record, my interviews with participants covered a range of different emotions. Through the tears and the anger was laughter and strength. As such, I am keen to ensure I acknowledge the positivity and ‘can do’ attitude some of my participants had. Whilst largely experiences were negative, many of those I spoke to discussed their motivation and drive to succeed despite the potential obstacles living with a criminal record creates. This resilience was shown by many and it was something people spoke proudly of.
NOTE: names have been changed
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.
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 fairchecks.org.uk where you can join the movement and write to your local MP.
Looking back at 2019 – A month-by-month review of our work and criminal record developments
With the Christmas break almost upon us and 2019 coming to an end, it’s a good time to reflect on the last 12 months at Unlock and the developments relating to criminal records.
Once again it’s been an incredibly busy year for us, with lots of positive news and progress to report in terms of the charity itself:
- We’ve continued to expand the information, advice and support we provide to help people overcome the stigma of their convictions. We have some amazing case studies, including Brinley (“I successfully challenged an ineligible DBS check and kept my job”) and Davina (“I was accepted onto a nursing course despite my conviction”)
- We have yet again seen large numbers of people accessing our helpline and websites. Our helpline will have yet again dealt with around 8,000 enquiries this year – a phenomenal number given the size of the helpline team. We also piloted the use of web-chat, which we’re planning to make more use of in 2020.
- Our information site for people with criminal records has, with all the updates across the year, yet again had over 1 million visitors and our disclosure calculator has helped around 50,000 people work out when their convictions become spent.
- Our website for employers, Recruit!, has continued to be a vital source of guidance and resources for employers and organisations in helping them to deal with criminal records fairly.
- We advertised for new trustees to join our board and we’re looking forward to announcing the details of the new appointments early next year.
As you can see in the month-by-month highlights below, there’s also been some significant positive policy developments that we’ve played a part in.
Most notably, the Supreme Court ruled, in a case that we intervened in, that two aspects of the criminal records disclosure scheme are disproportionate and in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was the first time in Unlock’s history that we’d intervened in a legal case, and we are incredibly grateful to all those who donated to help us cover our legal costs. We’re still awaiting a government response to the judgment and we are continuing to prioritise this as an area of work for us in 2020. We also saw a number of universities lead the way by signing the ‘Fair Chance for Students with Convictions’ pledge.
But it’s not all been positive. There continues to be new and extended policies and practices that treat people with convictions unfairly and punish people long after they’ve served their sentence. The number of criminal record checks is increasing, and we’ve been looking specifically at the issue of ineligible checks (which you’ll hear more about very soon).
All of this explains why we’ve just published our priorities for government in 2020, where we are calling on the government to commit to five priorities to bring about a fresh start for law-abiding people with criminal records.
And the London Bridge attack at the end of November brought into sharp focus the importance of the work that we do. Enabling people who have offended the chance to change and to move on positively is socially, economically and morally right. The aim of terrorism is to destroy our values and beliefs. We won’t allow these events to destroy our belief in the power of all people to do better.
This all means that, now more than ever, it’s vital that we continue to work hard to provide support and a voice for people with criminal records. So we look forward to yet another strong year in 2020, and we are grateful to those of you that continue to support our vital work.
On a practical note, our helpline will be closed for the Christmas holidays from 4pm on Friday 20th December and will reopen at 10am on Thursday 2nd January 2019. Our information site has details on what to do if you have questions over the festive period.
In the meantime, on behalf of all the staff and the board of trustees, I would like to wish the people we help, our volunteers, supporters and funders a very merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year.
Some key moments, month-by-month
January – We responded to the judgment of the Supreme Court on the criminal records disclosure regime. The charity provided an intervention to the court to highlight the unjust consequences of the current regime and the alternative, fairer systems available. We also published a personal response to the Supreme Court ruling
February – We were pleased to be able to share a short video that explains a little bit about Unlock, the work that we do and why it is so important in helping the millions of people in this country who have a criminal record.
March – Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee, introduced a Westminster Hall debate on the disclosure of youth criminal records and he thanked Unlock and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice for the evidence we provided. As part of the inquiry, we had arranged a seminar for Committee members and people with convictions to meet and discuss the impact of disclosing criminal records from childhood. The debate was well informed and MPs highlighted the effects of disclosure on employment, education, housing, travel and insurance.
April – Following UCAS’ decision to remove the question about criminal convictions for all applicants, universities had to consider if, when and how to collect this information. UCAS still ask applicants to regulated programmes – for example medicine or teaching – to declare criminal records. Having worked with UCAS and universities for some time, we felt it was important to support universities to develop fair admissions policies for applicants with previous criminal records. We published a blog – University admissions: what’s changed? – detailing the work we had been doing in the last year or so, what we had learned so far and our plans for future work in this area.
May – Bloomsbury Institute broke new ground with ban the box for staff and students, and we published a blog – Appointing a trustee with a criminal record: reflections of a successful applicant and charity – which was the lived experience of a charity working within the criminal justice system that was successful in getting a waiver from the Charity Commission for a trustee applicant that was “disqualified” because of their criminal record.
June – A report backed tax breaks to employers that recruit people with convictions. We also made some updates to the most popular page on our information site – travelling to the USA – by publishing some new information which help to work out whether they need a Visa.
July – We commented on the Ministry of Justice’s plans on criminal record reform and we published a report highlighting the ‘double discrimination’ faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic people with a criminal record. We also worked with NHS Employers on their new guidance on recruiting people with criminal records, which resulted in some important changes to the process which we set out here.
August – The Association of British Insurers (ABI) published updated guidance on how insurers should treat people with convictions. The guide, first published in 2011 and revised in 2014, was updated to reflect recommendations made by Unlock. We also worked with The Key (an organisation that provides tools and services to education leaders) on their new guidance on asking about criminal records. Many schools ask about criminal records on application forms and ask candidates to bring a written disclosure which may be discussed at interview. The Key received legal advice that this is likely to be considered excessive data collection, as successful candidates will be required to undergo DBS checks. Their advice now is that school recruiters should NOT ask applicants to disclose at any stage before an offer is made. In essence, schools should follow Ban the Box principles. Following an offer, the preferred candidate should complete the relevant level of DBS check and any disclosure should form the basis of a discussion before a final decision is made. In collaboration with Unlock, The Key have published detailed guidance on how to go about discussing a disclosure with a candidate.
September – We published a policy briefing which sets out the concerns that Unlock has about the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) in relation to those EU nationals in the UK that have a criminal record. Our aim is to help secure the rights of EU nationals who are eligible for settled status in the UK by ensuring that a criminal record does not unfairly exclude them. The briefing aims to inform the ongoing work that the Home Office and other key stakeholders are doing on the process to better understand the policy and to improve practice.
October – As part of our Unlocking students with conviction project, we announced that ten UK universities lead the way in helping people with convictions access higher education by signing the ‘Fair Chance for Students with Convictions’ pledge. Universities that have signed the pledge include University of Nottingham, University of Liverpool, Birkbeck, University of London, University of Essex, University of Kent, University of Lincoln, University of the West of England, Bristol, London Metropolitan University, Bloomsbury Institute and University of Southampton. To ensure applicants are aware of the commitment, signatories will be asked to include a link to the pledge in their admissions policy going forward. A toolkit to help universities make admissions fair was also published.
November –We were delighted that one of Unlock’s long-standing helpline volunteers, Simon, was shortlisted for the Helpline Partnership’s ‘Helpline Volunteer of the Year’ award. On hearing the news, Simon said: “I’m delighted to have been shortlisted for the Helpline Partnership ‘Volunteer of the year’ award. As much as this is recognition that the work I do for Unlock is truly appreciated, what I have given to Unlock is a moot point in comparison to what they have done for me.”
December – As a charity set up by people with criminal records, Unlock is committed to fair recruitment and the inclusion of people with lived experience of the criminal justice system. Our recruitment policy has helped us do that but we believe every organisation should regularly review their policies and practices to make sure they’re as effective as they can be, so we reviewed our policy and made some improvements. We also put out a statement on the London Bridge attack. Enabling people who have offended the chance to change and to move on positively is socially, economically and morally right. The aim of terrorism is to destroy our values and beliefs. We won’t allow these events to destroy our belief in the power of all people to do better. And following the general election, we published our priorities for government in 2020, where we are calling on the government to commit to five priorities to bring about a fresh start for law-abiding people with criminal records.