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Tag: Unlock events

Banning the Box and the Demands for Disclosure – Part 1

It’s a sobering thought when you’re sat there, faced with three strangers you’ve never met: the panel at your job interview has more information about your criminal record than a jury would if you were on trial. And, in a capitalist economy where we all have to earn a living, employers are every bit as powerful an influence on your life as judges.

In a criminal trial, the jury is not allowed to know if you have a previous conviction. This is to make sure they aren’t prejudiced against you so that you get a fair trial. Research with mock juries has shown that jurors are likely to believe a defendant guilty if they know the defendant has been convicted a similar crime in the past. So it’s probable that interview panels are more likely to believe people with convictions might commit a crime while they’re employing them if they know about previous convictions. But, with one in five unemployed people having a criminal record, how are they supposed to get a fair interview if they’ve already had to disclose their convictions to the potential employer on their application form?

Some employers make sure that interview panels aren’t shown your disclosure so that they aren’t prejudiced. Many do not. And many small firms don’t have an HR dept., it’s just the boss, your application form, you and your record. So it’s impossible to remove prejudice. And that’s exactly why ‘Ban the Box’ action is crucial.

The practice of employers seeking a disclosure is very common, according to one survey carried out for British Industry in the Community (BITC) it’s a staggering 73%. In response, one year ago, BITC supported by Nacro, Unlock and others, launched the UK’s own Ban the Box campaign, #bantheboxuk.

The idea is to work with employers to get them to remove the criminal convictions question (‘the box’) from application forms and only ask about convictions at a later stage in the process – this varies depending on the employer, but many instead ask at interview.

So, imagine being in an interview in your forties and being quizzed about the worst and most stupid thing you did in your teens. Does that seem like a reasonable interview question to you? No? Well, that’s exactly the kind of situation people with convictions face every day.

Emotionally, it can be a truly gruelling process. Even the most well-meaning of employers, like charities who work with the disadvantaged, walk you back through the worst time in your life, get you to talk about what was going on for you at the time, assess your level of regret and remorse then thank you very much for your honesty and show you the door. If they don’t give you the job, there was absolutely no need for them to put you through that or for them to have that information. It’s an invasion of privacy of the highest order, and many people who’ve been through it never again seek work from employers who behave that way.

If employers ask about records on application, it means everyone who applies needs to make a disclosure, even though only one person – the successful candidate – ever really needs to. All the other applicants and interviewees are just members of the public with no legal obligation to disclose or undergo a DBS check. Their offending isn’t relevant to the employer because they are not employed, and are not going to be. So they should be able to exit the recruitment process with their privacy and dignity intact, shouldn’t they?

This is Part 1. More to follow….

You can read more about Ban the Box at

Are the changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act enough?

People with criminal convictions are not the most popular group in society.

However, once somebody has served their sentence and doesn’t re-offend, it’s in everybody’s interests to enable them to move on positively with their lives and contribute actively to society.

And we’re not talking about a small group of people either – although around 100,000 people are sent to prison every year, there are over 1.4 million convictions at court every year. The majority – approximately 945,000 convictions – involve a fine, with 195,000 convictions resulting in a community sentence, and about 45,000 having a suspended prison sentence. There are over 9 million people in England and Wales with a criminal record. A third of people claiming jobseekers allowance have been cautioned or convicted in the last 10 years.

Before 1974, anybody given a conviction at court would have to disclose this for the rest of their life if they were asked. This caused people real difficulties when trying to get their lives back on track. That is one of the main reasons why the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was introduced 40 years ago. It remains the only real piece of legislation that provides some form of legal protection to people with convictions.

However, ever since it was introduced, it’s been criticised in many ways, with the main focus of attention being on the ‘rehabilitation periods’ attached to a sentence. For example, a fine took 5 years to become ‘spent’, an 8 month prison sentence took 10 years, and a sentence of more than 30 months in prison could never be spent.

That’s why, right from when Unlock was started back in 1999, we’ve campaigned for reforms. We were part of the Government’s original Breaking the Circle review in 2002, and since then have pushed for the recommendations in that review to be implemented. The more recent Breaking the Cycle review brought the item very much back on the agenda, and although it’s been a long-time coming, changes we’re finally included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which received Royal Assent in 2012.

Two years further down the line, we’re delighted that the changes will be coming into force on 10th March 2014. This means that many people will find that their conviction becomes ‘spent’ a lot sooner than it did previously. It only applies in England and Wales, but the changes are ‘retrospective’, which means it applies to people convicted before the March changes.

So, if you were sentenced in June 2013 to 1 year in prison, this would previously have taken 10 years to become ‘spent’. Under the changes, this will reduce to 4 years from the end of the full sentence (so June 2018). It also means that many people who had a conviction that would never be spent (whose sentence was between 30 months and 4 years) will now find that it will be able to become spent. There are also big changes to non-custodial sentences. The rehabilitation periods for community orders are being reduced considerably, and fines are reduced from 5 years to 1 year.

For many people with convictions, this means an end to the years of struggles that they’ve had in finding work or buying insurance. One comment we recently received typifies the impact this will have – “I’ve struggled for the last 20 years. My convictions were previously never spent. I’ve been waiting for the last two years for these changes to come in. Finally, I can apply for work with a clean slate. Thank you.”

Once a conviction is spent, it means you don’t have to disclose for most jobs, and insurance, and it won’t be disclosed on a basic check. It doesn’t get deleted, and for jobs that involve standard or enhanced criminal record checks, it will continue to get disclosed in most cases.

However, despite all of the positives, the reforms are not perfect. Sadly, when the changes were being brought before Parliament, we found ourselves largely isolated in calling for further change. The result is that, while the reforms will undoubtedly make a significant impact to thousands of people, it nonetheless represents somewhat of a missed opportunity, given it’s the first time in nearly half a century that significant change has taken place.

For example, although the upper-limit of sentence that can become spent has been raised from 30 months to 4 years, we continue to campaign for a system that allows people with sentences of more than 4 years to have a way of their convictions becoming spent at some point. In 2012, over 7,200 people received a prison sentence of more than 4 years, and it remains a sad indictment on our criminal justice system that it believes it cannot rehabilitate these individuals. The simple passage of time might not represent the most appropriate way of attributing a rehabilitation period to a conviction, but placing any individual outside the scope of the Act permanently sends out the message that they are inherently ‘unreformable’ or ‘irreclaimable’ and acts as a disincentive to any attempt at reform on their part.

One solution would be to give people with sentences of over 4 years the opportunity to apply to a court or other tribunal for their conviction to become spent after going a minimum amount of time in the community conviction-free. Such a process could also apply to people who under the reforms have to wait many years for their conviction to become spent. One of the advantages of such a scheme would be to act as an incentive to achieve rehabilitated status so that the stigma of the ‘ex-offender’ label could be effectively removed as though the conviction had become spent from the mere passing of time. Achieving rehabilitated status could perhaps become a significant ‘marker’ in the process, a rite of passage, formal recognition of re-integration requiring conscious and deliberate activities consistent with good and active citizenship.

Another issue which wasn’t addressed by the reforms was the number of exceptions to the legislation, which relates to those jobs and roles where spent convictions can also be taken into account. The growing number of exceptions from and exemptions to the Act mean that people with old convictions are consigned to an increasingly narrow range of employment and educational opportunities. This is shown in the number of standard and enhanced criminal record checks undertaken in recent years (which can only be done on positions which are exempt from the Act). In 2002, there were 1.3 million a year; in 2011, there were 4.3 million.

Some of this represents an increasing appetite for criminal record checks from employers. Nevertheless, the same period has also seen a significant number of additions to the exceptions. Although the Government has ruled this out on a number of occasions, what is needed is for the exceptions order to be overhauled to establish precisely what types of occupations should be included in it. Consideration should also be given as to whether exceptions could be included based on the relevancy of the offence to the role/occupation, e.g. financial convictions for FCA approved-positions. Roles included within the exceptions order should only be entitled to certain spent convictions. Blanket access to all convictions is not a particularly sophisticated or effective way of disclosing conviction information.

The reforms also fail to deal with the developments since the original law was passed in the way that information is now readily available – largely referred to as the ‘Google effect’. There’s no easy answer to this problem – court reporting, albeit patchy, remains a fundamental right of our justice system, and the increasing ways of sharing information online represents a significant challenge to the way that the 1974 legislation works, particularly given its continued reliance on a ‘licence to lie’ principle. Sadly, the Act is often criticised for being ‘toothless’, and to my knowledge, no employer has ever been prosecuted for taking into account spent convictions, despite numerous anecdotal examples of this having taken place in practice. One practical measure would be to amend to ROA so that it was an offence to ask about criminal convictions beyond a limited form specific to unspent convictions (rather than just a duty to ignore any spent convictions). Without the force of the law to prevent employers and insurers from asking questions to which they are not entitled to know the answer they have and will continue to discriminate with impunity. Such a change would enable people with convictions to answer questions honestly, rather than being licensed to lie.

On a technical point, one thing that is being kept quite quiet is the way that motoring offences are being dealt with. Because of complaints by the insurance industry, the changes that were planned to motoring endorsements (from 5 years to nil) are no longer happening. Although we can understand the issues raised by the motor insurance industry, the unfortunate knock-on effect is that motoring convictions are dealt with much more seriously under the ROA than short prison sentences, and this applies not just to insurance, but also for when people are applying for work. This is an area that we’re actively looking to challenge moving forward.

Despite these issues, there is, without doubt, a feeling of relief that these reforms are finally coming into force. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the remaining difficulties that are left unaddressed by the 1974 Act, and it would be a mistake to think that, if your conviction becomes spent under these changes, that’s the end of your problems. Sadly, in our experience, a criminal record will continue to haunt people for the rest of their lives, and in many cases this prevents people from reaching their full potential. That cannot be good for society.

What’s next in practice?

Once the changes come in on the 10th March, we’ll be updating the guidance we have on our self-help website,, as well as updating our online tool

We also know that staff and practitioners that provide employment support and careers advice to people with convictions often struggle in understanding this legislation – 8 out of 10 people we provide training to get the ROA wrong, so we’re holding ‘masterclasses’ on the changes. Details of these can be found on our website.

House of Lords Reception: A Refreshing Change

DSC_0003by Richard, Editor of theRecord

We gathered where the laws are made, where the Law Lords do their thing; the place where the wallpaper costs £59,000 (see image). And I was defensive. Having a conviction more or less bars me from taking part in politics, the press would tear me apart before I even got started and, since the original 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, I’m not aware that anything particularly useful has emerged from this place to help people like me put their past behind them; at least, not without being forced into it by the EU. In fact, things have got considerably worse for people with convictions over the last ten years, so I had a big question mark in my mind about what we were all doing here: are the people who run this place really our allies? But I was pleasantly surprised.

First, Lord Ramsbottom spoke. He’s a lively and humorous man, and left me in no doubt that there are people in the upper echelons of the establishment who do care about the lot of those at the other end of the social scale. He has a clear commitment to Unlock and to the people it serves. It was good to see.

Then Charlie Ryder came on, making excellent points about the use of language and the problems with the term ex-offender. I don’t like it myself because it makes ‘offender’ sound like a job description, like ex-journalist, or ex-footballer; like having a conviction was something I wanted to achieve and was once proud of. At least ‘people with convictions’ has a double meaning and, as Charlie tells us, the writer and producer Emilia di Girolamo says: “To succeed after prison you need real conviction because the odds are stacked against you.”

As I mingled and circulated among the crowd I met people from charitable trusts who help fund Unlock, business developers from private security and prison firms who are interested in developing whole packages of aftercare and resettlement services that, currently, don’t really exist. And they have the resources and the research to prove these initiatives reduce re-offending, which is always the big selling point when going after tax-payers money. I met powerful and successful lawyers who make it their business to fight for people like me; to use every legal tool available to slice off the ball and chain that a criminal record can be. I met senior probation officers and policy makers who all share the same conviction: that it’s not what you did that matters, it’s what you do now that counts. And it was good.

The main thing I took away from that reception was a refreshed understanding that there are a lot of good, well connected and committed people working on developing far more progressive approaches to rehabilitation that have yet seen the inside of the Lords’ chamber as legislation, and that not everything that comes out of this place – or as MPs call it ‘The other place’ – is designed to make my life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of other, more difficult.

Unlock reception at the House of Lords


by Erica Crompton

“I’ve got to run soon,” says Lord Ramsbotham, life peer in the House of Lords and president of Unlock. Speaking at Unlock’s reception, he adds: “But before I do I have to say, this is one of the nicest rooms in the House of Lords. It was a drawing room for the Lords Chancellor and now it’s the Lord Speakers room. He stipulated that the only people who could use it would be do-ers organisations. Organisations like Unlock. This charity represents to me something very remarkable because the people have been there and are coming and doing it for other people.”

We’re gathered in this plush room in the House of Lords tonight to learn about the new direction of Unlock. Now known as Unlock – for people with convictions, the new name has a double meaning. It’s not just criminal records that the new title eludes to. It’s also people’s convictions to reach their full potential.

Political freedom fighter and playwright, Charlie Ryder says: “I welcome Unlock’s name change to ‘people with convictions’. Ex-offender is so offensive. I feel it’s a permanent label based on the worst thing you’ve ever done. It focuses on the past rather than the future. None of us would like to be judged at the lowest point in our lives.”

Unlock trustee Carlotta Allum can relate: “I am someone with a conviction from 16 years ago and the ignorance and prejudice I have faced shocked me. Immediately after my crime I kept my head down. I trained to be an art teacher. But lots of people started judging me on my conviction even though I was doing well at my placement in school.”

But charities like Unlock can help with this. They’re currently responding to social and political climate. It isn’t enough to make a difference, they say, and so they prove it day in, day out.

“We hold true to the ethos that our charity should be led by people with convictions. This makes all the difference.” says Julie Harmsworth Director of Operations at the charity.

Unlock are looking forward. They have their new terminology. They’re launching a new website at the end of the year. And they’ve launched their new information hub – the most comprehensive source of self-help information, reaching a quarter of a million people every year, and growing.

One such person Unlock has reached out to is Steve Smith, a former Unlock volunteer. Steve discovered Unlock at the end of a custodial sentence. He soon became the charity’s first volunteer.

Steve says: “When I arrived at Unlock, I wanted to get back into the construction industry. But my mind was open to take on what I could and resettle back into the community. After volunteering with Unlock an opportunity came up for an Office Manage post at Changing Paths, helping people with convictions back into employment. I went to the interview and they gave me the job. I soon started in the role. Today I am the Project Manager at Changing Paths.”


Pictured above: Judge John Samuels QC (Unlock Vice President), Stephen Smith (Project Manager at Changing Paths) and Linda PIzani-Williams (Chair of Trustees at Unlock)

Thanks to Unlock, many people, like Steve, have succeeded in finding work or fulfilling goals. “I’m thrilled to be an Unlock trustee today” says Carlotta, “As I’m sure you’ll understand, it’s a cause close to my heart.”

Then, before tonight’s ensemble of trustees, supporters, peers and legal eagles, Julie concludes: “You’ve just heard some of the reasons I work for Unlock.”

Unlocking Criminal Record Checks

A lot of the contributions to theRecord tend to focus around the difficulties people face in trying to find work with a criminal record.

So, I thought it would be helpful to write a quick post from Unlock, just to flag up a new guide that we have recently written, which focused on the Disclosure & Barring Service and their processes.

Sadly, this guide doesn’t solve all of the problems that people with convictions face, but it should hopefully help people to better understand the process, know where they stand, and also challenge employers and the DBS where appropriate.

There is a more detailed explanation of this guide, and the guide can be download in full here.

We’d be grateful to read your comments on this guide, to see whether you’ve found it useful.

Best wishes,

Christopher Stacey

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