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Criminal records: Learning from Europe


In recent years, the UK criminal records disclosure system has been subject to intense scrutiny. A series of piecemeal reforms in response to high-profile events has resulted in a confusing and complicated process which, in many ways, undermines rehabilitation policies and places additional obstacles in the way of people with convictions in moving on positively with their lives. Other countries have developed their systems in different ways, responding to different priorities, and the reason for this Fellowship is to try and learn from these different approaches.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is UK’s national memorial to Sir Winston, and each year the Trust awards Travelling Fellowship grants to UK citizens in a range of fields to enable Churchill Fellows to carry out research projects overseas. These projects are designed to exchange ideas and best practice, and build greater understanding between peoples and different cultures, in order that professions and communities in the UK can benefit from these shared experiences.

Christopher Stacey, Co-Director at Unlock, was awarded a Travelling Fellowship in 2014. This page explains more about this work.

Download the report here (published April 2015) or read a summary of the recommendations below.



Objectives of the Fellowship

The objectives of this fellowship were three-fold:

  1. To increase understanding of forward-thinking policies, practices and attitudes that exist in other countries, which strike a better balance between public safety and the rehabilitation of offenders.
  2. To identify practical measures that the UK’s policy and practice could learn from other countries and improve the system of using criminal records
  3. To raise awareness of these practical measures, working with Government and other stakeholders to take these forward

The countries that Chris visited as part of the Fellowship are France, Spain and Sweden. Each of the countries were identified because they demonstrate, in different ways, policies and practices that are progressive and forward-thinking.

The aim was to better understand the policy/processes that govern the use of criminal records in recruitment, but also, and more importantly, to get beneath the policy and understand the reality of how employers use criminal records, and how the helps or hinders people with convictions.


Output of the project

A report, titled Rehabilitation & Desistance vs Disclosure, was published in April 2015. The report can be downloaded here or by clicking the image below.


A press release that was issued at the time that the report was published can be read here.


Summary of recommendations

As well as the full report (above), we have published a summary of the recommendations – these are also listed below.

Government (and disclosure agencies)

The use of criminal records

  • ‘Police’ records and ‘Conviction’ records should be held separately. Conviction records may come from Police records, but they would be held separately, solely for disclosure purposes.
  • The Government should explore the use of ‘occupational disqualifications’ more broadly as a means of regulating who can work in certain roles, allowing for more restricted access to criminal records in other roles and more expansive ‘cancelling’ systems.

Disclosures on criminal record checks

  • The UK should establish an ‘ultimate’ form of rehabilitation which applies for all types of disclosures.
  • The UK should introduce measures which enable any person with convictions to be ultimately regarded as legally ‘rehabilitated’.
  • Research should be undertaken to understand the effectiveness of the system of ‘judicial rehabilitation’ in France.
  • The UK should learn from how France, Spain and Sweden have been able to have a stronger commitment to ‘rehabilitation’ laws when applied to jobs that work in sensitive roles.
  • Research should be undertaken into whether measures that deal with criminal records have any positive impact on rehabilitation/desistance.
  • More research needs to be done into the effectiveness of systems which ‘forgive’, comparing them to systems that ‘forget’, and how the two can work together in a cohesive criminal record disclosure system.
  • Research should be carried out to understand what impact ‘forgiving’ and ‘forgetting’ measures have in mitigating the collateral consequences of criminal records.

The process of issuing criminal record checks for employment

  • Research should be done into the effectiveness of criminal record checks and what value they provide to employers that use them.
  • There should be a general prohibition against criminal record checks for recruitment. Exceptions would be granted on a case-by-case basis, where it was deemed (a) lawful and (b) necessary.
  • Government should ensure that criminal record details are provided directly to the individual, and not to third parties such as employers.
  • Individuals should be able to obtain a copy of what they might have to reveal to a future employer. In particular, this would mean being able to get a copy of your own DBS, at a notional cost in line with data protection rights.


  • Employers should only carry out a criminal record check where there is specific law which requires them to do so.
  • Research should be carried out which looks at the effects of asking for criminal record details at different stages of the recruitment process.
  • Employers should only consider asking for details of criminal record when they ‘can forsee hiring’ an individual, and only then in relation to convictions for offences which have clear relevance to the job role.
  • Employers should shift the phrasing of their questions towards asking for details of what would be disclosed on the relevant level of check that the job is eligible for.

General recommendation

  • Phrases such as “criminal record”, “criminal record certificate” and “criminal background” should be replaced with “criminal history”.


Learning from overseas

We’re taking forward the recommendations of this report as part of our work to learn from overseas and improve policy and practice in the UK. Latest news linked to this are also available at the bottom of this page.

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