- Campaign to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974
- Filtering of old and minor convictions
- Complaint leading to ruling that the Disclosure and Barring Service breached the Data Protection Act
- Developing access to banking for people in prison before release
- Insurance law reform
- Scrapping ‘disqualification by association’
- Research into Financial Exclusion – “Time is Money”
- Research – Unlocking Credit Unions
- Research – Criminal Records: Learning from Europe
Campaign to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974
This campaign was to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to reduce the disclosure periods that applied to people with convictions who were trying to lead law-abiding lives. These people were faced with obstacles due to the stigma and discrimination due to having to disclose their criminal records for significant periods of time, and in some cases for life. The Act hadn’t been changed since it was first passed in 1974, despite Government reviews and recommendations as late back as 1999, and the law had become increasingly out-of-kilter due to sentence inflation.
This was not a popular cause. Unlock canvassed the support of Lord Dholakia, who led a Private Members Bill with the support of our President, Lord Ramsbotham, which proposed the changes that we had set out. As a result of the Coalition Government, there was an opportunity to push these changes through, but politically this was difficult, and resulted in numerous delays. We mobilised our client-base (people with convictions) to put pressure on their local MP, and we worked closely with a number of Peers, as a well as the responsible Government departments, to work through a delicate political situation. We also organised a number of stakeholder roundtables – in particular, we held a ‘service user’ group with the Ministry of Justice. The MoJ had policy responsibility for the issue, so that they could hear first-hand the difficulties that the old law was causing, to re-affirm the need for change.
Changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act came into force on the 10th March 2014. On this day, the result of the changes meant that hundreds of thousands of people’s convictions automatically became “spent”, which means that for many purposes, such as applying for most jobs and when applying for insurance, they no longer need to disclose their record.
In establishing statistically the numbers of people helped by these changes, we have carried out some research which suggests that, before the changes came in, just over 2.5 million people had an unspent criminal record. Following the reforms, we estimate this number to have reduced to less than 750,000, meaning that over 1.75 million people have benefitted as a result.
Since the changes came in, our helpline has been overwhelmed by calls from people looking to find out if the changes help them, and one particular person is quoted as saying:
“I’ve had an unspent conviction for the last 35 years. I’m now in my late fifties and I never believed this day would come. My record is now spent now. I can’t believe it – I feel like a normal person again. Finally, I’ll be able to put myself forward for jobs without the fear of being discriminated against. Thank you!”
“I wanted to write to congratulate you and the team at Unlock for your success in achieving amendments to the ROA. I would also like to thank you. As a beneficiary of the changes, I am hugely grateful for the work that you have done, and for the information that your service provides. Without Unlock, I would not have received the clarity and advice on what I have needed to declare and how the passage of a Bill through Parliament works. I may have paid my debt to society some time ago, but I think my debt to Unlock is still somewhat outstanding.”
We appeared on BBC Breakfast on the 10th March (the day the changes came into force) as well as a range of other press and media. On the same day, we also published a news piece, which provides details of a number of steps that we took including publishing guidance/posters, updating our online disclosure calculator and delivering training to practitioners so that they understood the changes.
In 2015 we won Social Justice Campaigner of the Year at the Campaigner Awards, as a result of this work.
To give a sense of the positive impact these changes have made, we’ve published some comments from individuals that benefited from the reforms.
However, there’s more to do. In our view the changes don’t go far enough (see our policy pages for more information).
Filtering of old and minor convictions
Since the introduction of the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), now the Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) regime of criminal record checks, the number of employers carrying out standard and enhanced level checks has increased significantly. This has had the adverse effect of undermining the intent of rehabilitation legislation to allow people with convictions to move on with their lives. This is because for jobs involving these levels of checks spent convictions continue to be disclosed forever.
Following a legal challenge a process known as ‘step-down’ was removed in October 2009 – this meant that all convictions and cautions, no matter how old or minor, were disclosed on standard and enhanced checks. This had a significant impact on those who had had information stepped-down and for those who would have benefitted from it in the near future.
In particular, an independent advisory panel was set up which Unlock was invited to be a member of. The panel was known as the ‘Independent Advisory Panel on the Disclosure of Criminal Records’ (IAPDCR). The task of the panel was to recommend a set of filtering rules that could be applied to DBS checks. The result of this work was a set of proposals by the Chair of the Panel, in December 2011. At the same time the legal case of T challenged the blanket disclosure and in January 2013 the Court of Appeal ruled that blanket criminal record disclosure was incompatible with right to privacy. Unlock supported this case.
In March 2013, the Government put forward a filtering process, laying a draft order before Parliament, which came into force in May 2013. Unlock welcomed these proposals,
Data we obtained from the DBS showed that between 29th May 2013 and 16th September 2013 34,924 individuals had cautions and/or convictions filtered from their DBS certificate. This represents 110 days of operation; 317 individuals every single day. Over the course of a year this equates to 115,884 individuals benefiting from filtering.
In the first few months of the process it had already helped a significant number of people. One person told us;
“I’ve saw from your website that my conviction would be filtered. It had been holding me back for years. So I applied for a job in a school, I got the job, and now my DBS check has just come back clear. I’m so glad this is in place”.
However, we believe that filtering should go further and we have raised our concerns as part of the scrutiny of the legislation.
Complaint leading to ruling that the Disclosure and Barring Service breached the Data Protection Act
In 2013, we made a complaint to the ICO after the DBS failed to update their application form after the Government introduced a filtering process meaning that thousands of people no longer needed to disclose their convictions. Find out more about this work.
Developing access to banking for people in prison before release
In 2005, Unlock first identified the issue of people coming out of prison who had managed to secure employment, but were losing these opportunities because they didn’t have a bank account to get their wages paid into. The personal testimony below demonstrates the importance of this. It seemed like a simple problem to resolve, to open an account before release, but there were a number of complex underlying issues that stood in the way, not least the lack of engagement from many banks and the lack of awareness of the issue across prisons.
During the 9 years that followed, Unlock worked at various levels piloting a process in a small number of prisons; rolling this out into further prisons; working with the banking industry to develop a fair and sustainable process; working with specific banks to develop their operating processes and providing training/support to prisons. The work took much longer than we had expected. What began as a small charitably-funded pilot project ultimately ended up in a national campaign involving significant political and media attention.
Unlock is immensely proud of the progress that has been made. In 2013-14 alone 5,936 basic bank accounts were opened for people in prison ready for them to use once they were released. In total, Unlock has helped to set up 74 prison/banking programmes and overall now 114 prisons have links with a high-street bank. Ultimately, all prisons that want and need a basic bank account opening programme had one in place at the end of the project, which was the principal aim of the work.
This work shows the value of being responsive to the issues that people are facing. Unlock’s independence, and “ear to the ground, voice at the top” approach enabled us to achieve systemic change to a long-standing problem.
In 2014, we published a report which reflected on the progress that we’d made, and that set out a number of recommendations. Unlock then handed over day-to-day responsibility to NOMS for sustaining the work that we had pioneered.
More information about this work can be found in our Unlocking Banking project section.
Insurance law reform
For many years people with convictions found themselves in a difficult situation when purchasing insurance. This was because of archaic insurance law dating back to the Marine Insurance Act 1906 which imposed heavy duties on all consumers to disclose all material facts, even if the insurer didn’t ask about them specifically. If you failed to guess what the insurer wanted to know, your claim could be rejected.
In 2008, the Law Commission consulted on whether the law should be changed. Unlock made a submission which highlighted the problems that the law caused for people with convictions. Following this consultation, the Law Commission recommended a change in the law. Unlock, along with a number of other consumer organisations (including Age UK, Consumer Focus and Which?), worked hard to push the Government to change the law. Unlock provided evidence to the Special Bill Committee and submitted a joint briefing, This campaign was successful in March 2012, when the Consumer Insurance (Disclosure and Representations) Act 2012 received Royal Assent.
The Act came into force on 6th April 2013. It removes the duty on consumers to volunteer ‘material facts’ if not asked. The onus is now on the insurer to ask the right questions. For people with convictions, this will help to clarify the law when companies do not ask about certain convictions (e.g. non-motoring convictions). Previously, you had to disclose all unspent criminal convictions, regardless of whether you were asked about them or not. This is no longer the case.
The onus now sits squarely with the insurer to ask you the questions that they want to know information about. Instead of a duty to volunteer material facts, now the law requires you to answer the questions that are put to you fully and accurately. You need to “take reasonable care” and one of the factors that will be taken into account is whether the questions asked by the insurer were clear and specific.
Scrapping ‘disqualification by association’
In 2018, the government announced it was scrapping the ‘disqualification by association’ rule from schools. We’d been calling for it to be scrapped for nearly four years because it did nothing to contribute towards safeguarding in schools. The arrangements were disproportionate, unfair and ineffective.
Yet the fallout should not be underestimated – we know significant numbers of people had been unnecessarily suspended and some have lost their jobs as a result. Take Donna, for example, whose conviction meant her children lost their jobs in schools. These changes made a huge difference to the families and loved ones of people with convictions who worked in schools.”
More information about our work on disqualification by association is available here.
Research into Financial Exclusion – “Time is Money”
Unlock knows only too well that financial exclusion has a profoundly negative effect on people with convictions and their families. However, evidence of the nature, scale and extent of the barriers faced by people with a criminal record was required.
The challenges people face in seeking to re-establish their financial lives after a prison sentence are little understood by legislators or those responsible for policy in the private and public sectors. There was a gap in the literature regarding this issue and new evidence was required to tip the balance to reform in key areas such as insurance, bank accounts and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
As an upshot of this, Unlock conducted a research project, in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, to gain evidence of the issues that we know from our everyday work are faced by people with convictions. The research set out to enhance understanding of the scale and nature of financial exclusion amongst individuals and families affected by a criminal conviction throughout the stages of the criminal justice system and in later life. The project also set out to utilise this enhanced understanding to influence a broad range of commercial and government policy and practice.
Time is Money: financial responsibility after prison was published in late 2010. This report greatly enhanced understanding of the effects of criminal convictions on financial exclusion and also set out practical, achievable recommendations that would make significant improvements.
Since publication, Unlock has met with policy makers in both government and industry, including Lord McNally (Justice Minister and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords), HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Financial Services Authority.
Results of this work include the agreement to fast track a crucial piece of insurance law through the House of Lords which had previously sat dormant, and the FSA writing to NOMS to highlight the need for people in prison to be able to access their external bank accounts.
Research – Unlocking Credit Unions
People with convictions and their families face significant difficulties in accessing basic financial services which impacted on reintegration. Time is Money (Unlock: 2010) concluded that socially focused, not-for-profit credit unions are in a unique position to support people with these issues. In addition to products offered by banks, they provide affordable loans, money advice, access to PayPoint facilities and even access to easy payment and affordable electrical goods. Further, their approach is favourable to people reintegrating into the community. Their wide experience of the needs of low-income individuals assists the financially excluded to build financial stability and security. As a result of our banking project, Unlock identified a number of credit unions working with prisons and others interested in developing links. However, there is no sharing of best practice and no strategic approach to supporting these developments. The ultimate aim is to enable people who are serving, or have served, a prison or community sentence and their families, to access community financial services through the development of partnerships between credit unions and justice agencies in England & Wales.
In order to explore whether credit union membership could provide a bridge to community reintegration, particularly for those leaving prison, Unlock initiated a research project in partnership with the Research Unit for Financial Inclusion at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). The project conducted participative, action-oriented research into the benefits, barriers and options for the strategic expansion of credit union financial services. It highlighted 13 credit unions working in partnership with 21 local prisons providing savings accounts to people in prison with some offering a current account on release.
Unlock’s research report was launched at an event chaired by Damian Hinds MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Credit Unions at its meeting on 16 January 2013 at the Palace of Westminster.
Research – Criminal Records: Learning from Europe
In 2014, Unlock’s Co-Director was made a Winston Churchill Fellow and supported to travel to three European Countries to look at alternative ways of dealing with criminal records. Find out more about this work here, where you can also download the report that was published in April 2015 which made a number of recommendations for the UK.