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“What we need now is action” – Unlock’s view on the prisons white paper

For all the talk of rehabilitation, the proposals offer little that we haven't seen before.

The government has published its much-awaited prisons white paper, which covers a great deal of ground from building new prisons to measures to improve access to jobs on release. The latter is the focus of Unlock’s attention and can be found in the third chapter. 

While the paper offers renewed assurances that rehabilitation sits alongside public safety and announces some policies that Unlock would generally be happy to support, it also raises concerns as to whether the proposed measures will result in positive change for people in prison and beyond. 

It is a laundry list of good but unexciting announcements, and critically none of these are new ideas. Every government for several decades has promised to improve education, tackle substance abuse and create an integrated resettlement scheme that brings together probation and relevant local services. We’ve heard this all before. What we need now is action to match the words. 

It is vital for prisoners to have immediate access to housing and support services on release. Homelessness and chaotic living are big drivers of reoffending. Going further with schemes to improve access to universal credit and allow prisoners to open bank accounts before release are solid enough. More ambitious announcements such as an improved job matching service – the White Paper wants to see ‘a job centre in a prison’ – and local employment boards are schemes that can only work if employers support them. The government will have to work hard to make sure employers embrace such proposals, and that those opportunities provide suitable, stable employment. 

The white paper includes some acknowledgement of the challenge a criminal record presents people seeking employment. At Unlock, we see the provision of information about criminal records disclosure as a stepping stone to improving the chances of people leaving prison. But it won’t change the fact that having to disclose your criminal record remains a huge barrier, preventing people moving on positively with their lives.  Criminal record disclosure has become markedly more common, and has continued to increase following the arrival of basic DBS certificates in 2018. While it obviously helps to ensure that people know what disclosure is prior to them seeking employment, it would be much more beneficial to tackle why so many employers feel the need to ask about criminal records at all.  

While the disclosure system remains a significant barrier to work, housing and insurance it’s also an area that the government hasn’t really addressed either in the policing bill or in this white paper. A big part of the reason the government gave for reducing spending periods in the policing bill was to help people find employment and reduce discrimination. However, everyone released from prison still carries the stigma of a criminal record from the day they leave. Most people will have been released on licence and so their spending period is not even ticking down yet. 

It will likely help in a small way that a prison leaver will only have to declare the criminal record for one year instead of two, but this does nothing to address this immediate period when they are at the greatest risk of reoffending and have the greatest need of stable employment. 

The government has done nothing to curb the right of any employer to ask any applicant about their unspent criminal record, and it seems like they don’t intend to. For all of their talk about engaging with employers and finding good placements, these employers will have to go into the arrangements with the knowledge that every applicant definitely has a criminal record.  

These schemes might work. For all we know the next budget could arrive and bring huge sums of money to launch prison leavers back into work and let them live a normal life from day one. But even then, it would do nothing to address the stigma of a criminal record or the challenges that continue to plague people with unspent convictions. 

Things that may initially seem tiny eventually add up to major impact on individuals and their families. Even if prison leavers do land in a good job, they may have to declare their conviction to a landlord before they will agree to rent to them. They certainly will have to disclose to a home insurer or a car insurer before they can get cover, which in turn increases costs and adds to difficulties. Many major employers already ask for disclosure from all applicants, and over half of employers admit they would discriminate against someone with a criminal record.

We certainly hope that the government will deliver on their plans to get prison leavers into work. It is by far the most effective way to ensure people can move on positively with their lives. Unlock and other charities will continue to hold the government to account. And while it glosses over the issue, the white paper is another reminder of why Unlock continues to push for a root and branch review of the criminal records system. As long as we have a system that creates stigma and discrimination, we will continue to see poor results and a revolving door of reoffending. Over the past year we have seen adjustments to criminal records but no fundamental change. For real change for people facing stigma, discrimination and prejudice as a result of their criminal records, we need to change the system.  

Unlock will be responding to the white paper in detail. In the meantime, if you agree that we urgently need a root and branch review of the criminal records system – please join the FairChecks campaign. 

Written by:

Sam is the Policy Officer at Unlock

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Debbie Sadler
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