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Criminal records reform and the general election: a lost opportunity or time for change?

Policy officer Brendan Shepherd searches the main party manifestos for any sign of progress on criminal records reforms

Graffiti on the outside of a run-down building reads "Vote for me!" There is a prominent road sign meaning no entry. The building could be part of the prison estate.

A general election presents a certain amount of hope and opportunity. A new government might be expected to offer a chance for long-standing policies to be examined anew, particularly if a different party comes to power. 

The forthcoming general election is a perfect time for politicians to consider the pressing need for criminal records reform.

The party manifestos: missed opportunities

Amongst all the campaigning and the pledges made, the centrepiece of parties’ promises are their manifestos. Disappointingly, the main UK parties have missed opportunities to include criminal records reform in their vision for the future of the country. 

Liberal Democrats manifesto:

“Breaking the cycle of reoffending by improving rehabilitation in prisons and on release, and strengthening the supervision of offenders in the community.” 

Conservative manifesto:

“We will turn criminals away from the cycle of reoffending, investing in rehabilitative services such as drug treatment, education and employment. We will deliver our ten-year drugs plan to cut crime and help people rebuild their lives away from crime.” 

Labour manifesto:

“We will work with prisons to improve offenders’ access to purposeful activity, such as learning, and ensure they create pre-release plans for those leaving custody. We will support prisons to link up with local employers and the voluntary sector to get ex-offenders into work.” 

A narrow, punitive approach

The similarities in language between the main parties is striking. As would be expected, all parties make commitments to reduce reoffending. However, they do so with too narrow a focus.

Firstly, the emphasis is on prison leavers, seeking to solve short-term problems (that undoubtedly exist), for example through schemes focused on encouraging employers to offer work. Secondly, proposed measures too often focus solely on issues that often underpin offending behaviour.

Such approaches, although valuable, ignore two facts: that a criminal record itself acts as a long-term barrier to future opportunities and that the majority of people with criminal records have never been to prison.

Labour’s manifesto has an entire chapter titled “Break down barriers to opportunity”.  But this fails to address how criminal records can be a barrier to opportunity, or how disproportionality throughout the justice system holds people back. 

Focus on long-term impact is too often the missing piece of the jigsaw in measures around reducing reoffending. 

Indeed, each main party manifesto contains more on punitive measures to tackle crime (more prison places, longer sentences, new measures to combat specific offences) than it does on supporting people away from reoffending.  

Criminal records checks are not a silver bullet

Both the Labour and Conservative manifestos make reference to increased use of criminal records checks as part of improving police vetting. They aim to help rebuild trust in police standards. 

It is important to remember that DBS checks are only one part of necessary safeguarding procedures, and shouldn’t be treated as a silver bullet.

It is more helpful to centre the discussion on wider safeguarding measures such as clear and robust mechanisms to deal with allegations, addressing poor practice and building a less toxic culture. 

Missing the wider picture

What is missing in the various pledges about reducing reoffending is any recognition of the barriers created by a criminal record and how addressing these barriers would help break that cycle for many people. 

Pledges around supporting people in prison to access work fail to recognise the barriers a criminal record can pose to securing stable employment. They don’t consider other barriers faced by people with criminal records, such as reduced access to housing, and the knock-on effect this can have on getting a job.

Quite apart from the election, 2024 also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA). This legislation still underpins the rights of people with criminal records to see their convictions forgotten (in most cases). But the world has changed since 1974. As such, time is ripe for a review of the criminal records regime it established. 

The change that’s needed

Unlock is calling for wide-ranging, systemic change. You can read all about why we need reform of the criminal records system in our recent briefing.

We also believe there needs to be a distinct system to deal with childhood offences, in the same way youth justice is distinct in the rest of the criminal justice system. 

Unlock will continue to campaign for criminal records reform and engage with whoever forms the next government to this end. 

You can show your support for specific calls to government through the #FairChecks campaign.


Written by:

Policy Officer Brendan works on policy and parliamentary issues, campaigning and advocating for systemic change.


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