Westminster Hall debate on the disclosure of youth criminal records

The 28th March saw a Westminster Hall debate on the disclosure of youth criminal records (read here or watch here). This followed the publication of the Justice Select Committee’s report on the subject, back in 2017. The report itself was a result of the Committee’s inquiry into disclosure of youth criminal records, launched in 2016, and in some ways a follow-up to their inquiry on the treatment of young adults in the justice system.

Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Committee, introduced the debate and thanked Unlock and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice for the evidence we provided. As part of the inquiry, we had arranged a seminar for Committee members and people with convictions to meet and discuss the impact of disclosing criminal records from childhood.

The government had committed to considering the Committee’s recommendations following the Supreme Court’s ruling on the filtering rules.

The debate was well informed and MPs highlighted the effects of disclosure on employment, education, housing, travel and insurance. Key points included:

John Spellar: “Is not there also an overall, macroeconomic issue, particularly as a number of employers are expressing concerns about shortfalls in labour either leading up to or following Brexit? Artificially restricting people from working and, indeed, from advancing is not just bad for those individuals, shocking though that is, but very bad for society and the economy.”

Bob Neill: “Low-paid and unsatisfactory jobs create burdens at every level, so the point is entirely true”.

David Lammy: “Trident – They were the ones who said to me, “Could you put this [criminal records] into your review? We are aware of a group of offenders who reach about 25 or 26 years old and want to move away from their criminal past but continue to reoffend because, as they grow up, they cannot get a job due to the [disclosure] regime that we have.”

This, in particular, resonates at a time when serious youth violence is dominating the headlines. What hope is there of reducing violence if young people with even minor criminal records see that it is impossible for them to get into legitimate, sustainable employment? This has an impact on these young men, their communities and wider society. As Victoria Prentis said:

“Does ruining their lives serve any real, practical purpose for the rest of society?”

The fundamental issue is the purpose of ongoing disclosure, and whether the existing regime delivers on that purpose – or actually hampers other good work going on in the justice system.

As David Lammy said, the Supreme Court judgment provides an opportunity:

“The Supreme Court decision could be interpreted narrowly by the Government, but from reading the report, the Committee’s mood suggests that it is an opportunity, notwithstanding all that is going on in Parliament, for the Government to take a broader view and to review our criminal records regime.

“My view is that there should be a balance between a rules-based system, which is largely what we have, and which is clearly cheaper—that is effectively why we have it, because there is time and one makes a judgment about spent convictions and disclosure—and a system that is slightly more sophisticated and might cost slightly more. There is a question about who pays. In the Canadian jurisdiction, the individuals seeking to get their criminal records looked at again pay for the system. In my view, a parole board, a magistrate or a judge could make the assessment.”

David Hanson has recently published his review into prison education provision in Wales. In the debate, he said:

“We focus in the report on training, employment and through-the-gate services, including prison and youth offender institution training and community rehabilitation companies in adult prisons and elsewhere…but whatever the system does with that training, someone ultimately has to get a job with a public sector body or an employer.”

Ban the Box was supported by all contributors – it’s not a silver bullet, said Bob Neill, but a base on which to build.

The Civil Service has now rolled out Ban the Box across all departments, and Liz Savile Roberts MP asked how many people with criminal records were employed in the Ministry of Justice – more on this later.

David Hanson is a keen advocate for Ban the Box. As he put it:

“The simple idea…is that disclosure happens after the job interview and job offer. The right to refuse is still there, but the judgments are made on the merits of the application and the individual in front of the employer—not on a conviction that may have happened some years ago.”

This is exactly the approach Unlock advocates: ask about criminal records only after an offer has been made (although we know not all Ban the Box employers do it this way).

As David Lammy highlighted, it’s important to understand where Ban the Box sits within reform of criminal records disclosure:

“…the problem with that initiative is, first, that it is voluntary and, secondly, that it is about the recruitment stage? The fundamental point about the work by the Select Committee and others who have raised this issue is that, beyond recruitment, there are questions about whether things should be disclosed to employers in the first place. It would be important for the Government not to lose that principle.”

There were many other excellent points made but I want to turn now to the responses from Edward Argar, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, on behalf of the government. The government has yet to formally respond to the Supreme Court’s judgment in the cases of P and others. No formal response was forthcoming here either, instead the Minister said:

We work closely with the Home Office to give these things proper consideration. Although that judgment has been handed down, the order behind it has not yet been sent over to us. We await that order. When it is received, it is important that we are speedy and timely in addressing it.”

The Minister agreed that employment is a crucial factor in reducing reoffending – which costs 15bn a year on some estimates.

“…employers should not regard the disclosure of a criminal record as an automatic barrier to employment. A balanced judgment should be exercised, having regard to factors such as a person’s age at the time of the offence, how long ago it was, and the relevance to the application or post in question.”

Unfortunately, all the evidence shows that employers do regard a criminal record as a barrier to employment. This point was made several times during the debate, and also by Lord Kerr in the Supreme Court judgment. Given the government’s efforts to get prisoners into work on release, and their manifesto commitment to incentivising employers to recruit people with convictions, it seems odd to not acknowledge the real difficulties people face in gaining employment.

Perhaps the Minister’s perception is skewed by the apparently impressively inclusive approach of his own department. In response to Liz Savile Roberts’ question on the number of people with convictions employed at the Ministry of Justice, he said:

“My understanding is that of those people with a previous conviction who applied through the approach that has been taken in the civil service since 2016, 92% subsequently secured employment, which is a positive outcome.”

That certainly seems like a positive outcome. However, there doesn’t appear to be an official source for that figure, and we would welcome publication of the data because it’s important to understand this is context, such as the numbers it involves, what types of criminal records, how long ago, and why the 8% were refused.

I was pleased to see that the Minister agreed that the judgment – and the actions that must follow – creates an opportunity to consider the Committee’s recommendations for reform of the criminal records system. I hope this will mean that the Ministry of Justice (along with the Home Office) taken an holistic view of the current regime, its aims and the evidence, and look to make changes that benefit individuals with convictions, their communities and wider society.

Written by Christopher Stacey

Find out the latest on reform of the criminal records regime in our policy section on DBS filtering.

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