1998: The beginning
In 1998 a group of former prisoners got together to found Unlock – The National Association of Ex-offenders. They were: Mark Leech (Chairman), Bob Turney (Secretary) and Stephen Fry (Director).
Going Straight was the flagship publication for the launch of Unlockand comprises interviews with people who have ‘succeeded’ after being in prison, often having had what is often described as ‘a criminal career’. All royalties are paid to Unlock. The book looks at a range of offenders who have changed their way of life. They include famous, notorious, creative and ordinary people who were prepared to talk about the turning point in their lives (some people don’t, of course) – the events which caused them to leave crime behind. The central part of the book comprises interviews with people whose experiences have been raw, demanding and sometimes ‘close to the edge’. Their candid explanations about how they rebuilt their lives – often full or remorse for their victims and determined to repay something to their communities – are challenging, illuminating and a cause for some optimism
Bobby Cummines was approached to join Unlock and on 29 October 1998 he was appointed as Secretary Designate. Sir Stephen Tumim (former Inspector of HM Prisons) guided and sponsored the group from the outset and became its President until his death in December 2003 after which Lord David Ramsbotham (also former Chief Inspector of HM Prisons) took over the role.
The Association began the process of becoming a registered charity and sought funds to support its operations. Mark was based in Manchester with Bobby working from Kent, initially from his own home, then later opening an office in Snodland. As a result of a grant from The Tudor Trust, Bobby took up a paid position as Deputy Chief Executive commencing contracted employment in June 1999. Shortly afterwards, Mark was similarly successful in being awarded a grant from The Wates Foundation to fund his role as Chief Executive and thus the Manchester Office was established.
2000: Charitable status
By January 2000, Unlock finally achieved charitable status by which time both Bob Turney and Stephen Fry had left the organisation, their mission complete. A board of trustees were appointed and Unlock’s work began in earnest with Mark at the helm and Bobby his second in command. It quickly became apparent however that the charity needed additional staff to share the workload in Snodland though it had very little money to recruit anyone on a permanent basis. In March 2001, after serving a term as trustee, Julie Harmsworth (then Wright) moved into the operation side of the charity’s work to take on the role of assistant to Bobby on a part-time temporary basis. Julie was at that time reading law with the intention of going into legal practice and had formerly worked in both the private and public sector as well as undertaking volunteer work in the local community; it was an ideal solution.
2002 – 2005:Building the team
Sadly, Mark’s health deteriorated and in May 2002 he resigned from his post, the Manchester operation closed and its workload taken over by Bobby and Julie – the only remaining staff. They had very few resources but a lot of determination that the charity should move onwards and upwards, with Bobby taking on the mantle of Chief Executive. Unlock continued to challenge financial exclusion, tackle youth crime through partnerships with local police and schools, respond to prisoners and former offenders seeking assistance, visit prisons, and challenge exclusion by working with government and other agencies, in particular, being a member of the team on the Review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
For over a year Unlock was staffed at this level until Julie graduated from Law School in 2003 with an LLB. However rather than leave the charity as she had intended, she was asked to remain as a permanent full-time member of staff pending her ability to secure sufficient funding to support the role. Already committed to the Unlock cause, Julie embraced the opportunity and subsequently secured a grant from the Big Lottery which was instrumental in levering in other grants and securing the financial position of the organisation for the next three years.
The grant also provided for the recruitment of a part-time administrative assistant. Debbie Young was engaged in September that year to fill this role. She had extensive experience of working in the public sector as well as face-to-face work with the general public. Debbie was to take over many of the day-to-day office tasks essential for its smooth running and providing support for Bobby and Julie. Having worked alongside him for three years, Julie was formally given the title of Deputy to Bobby in January 2004.
The organisation continued to operate until August 2005 with just two full-time members and one part-time member of staff, at which point Chris Bath officially joined the team as Head of Projects. Having gained a First Class Degree from Warwick Business School, Chris had gone on to work in sales, marketing and management consultancy in the UK and abroad, gaining experience within companies including Unilever and BMW. Chris had previously given his time voluntarily to collaborate with Bobby on putting together the draft proposals for Bobby’s future Diamond Project and left a lucrative role with BMW to join Unlock. His post was initially funded by a sum of money that had been paid to the charity in the form of a fee for Bobby’s appointment by the Home Secretary to the Zahid Mubarek Public Inquiry. The Inquiry lasted for almost two years with Phase 1, hearing evidence, requiring Bobby to attend on a daily basis for several months from November 2004 alongside its Chair, Mr Justice Keith. Whilst this was a personal fee, Bobby was adamant that Unlock should use it as a means of developing Unlock as an organisation and particularly its ability to deliver innovative projects.
2005: The Pilotlight effect
Shortly after Chris’ arrival, Unlock learned that an earlier application to an organisation called Pilotlight had been accepted. Pilotlight is an organisation which provides a service to enable small charities become more effective by managing teams of senior business people to coach them through the process of building measurably more sustainable and efficient organisations. A yearlong intensive period of work for Unlock was to follow which made full use of Chris’ business acumen and Julie’s knowledge of Unlock to produce the organisation’s first comprehensive and achievable Operating Plan and Fundraising Strategy. These were to be the vehicles to take the organisation into the future. Unlock emerged reinvigorated and more focussed as a result. The charity was recognised by Pilotlight as one of its major successes and featured on its website for some time with Bobby being invited to address potential recruits to Pilotlight on many occasions.
Through the Pilotlight process the entire organisation was re-evaluated including its very name. Consequently, at its conference on 23 November 2006, the charity was positively re-named Unlock, the National Association of Reformed Offenders; a response to an environment in which the word ‘ex-offender’ had become indistinct from the word ‘offender’. This led to the term reformed offender becoming common parlance across the sector.
2007 – 2008: Financial inclusion
Throughout the Pilotlight process, Chris’ ‘day job’ was delivering a pilot project opening bank accounts for prisoners prior to release. In parallel he developed financial capability training in collaboration with prisoners, going on to train staff and peer supporters working in many prisons and charities across the UK. As Chris also developed access to insurance for people with unspent convictions and continued to promote the financial needs of reformed offenders with trade bodies such as the BBA and ABI, Unlock developed its reputation as the leaders in financial inclusion within the criminal justice system. Chris has gone on to represent Unlock on radio, television and the press and deliver Unlock’s first research project, investigating the effects of the criminal justice system on financial exclusion.
After an intense period of implementing the Fundraising Strategy, Unlock was awarded a further Big Lottery grant and several other major grants which combined to give us financial stability, a breathing space to ‘get on and do the work’, and the ability to take on a fifth and much needed employee in May 2008.
2009: Supporting people
Christopher Stacey had long followed Unlock’s work and was quick to apply when the position of Member Services Co-ordinator was advertised. Having just gained an LLB, he was studying for his LLM when his application to train to practice law had been refused because of his criminal conviction.
Christopher’s skill, determination and sheer effort transformed the breadth and depth of Unlock’s advice and information service. He developed a unique online discussion forum for Unlock members and published a monthly e-newsletter which later developed into theRecord, which is sent out to over 2,000 people. Christopher continues to use his professional knowledge and personal experience in communicating with those people who come to the charity for help. His permanent dialogue with members directly informs Unlock’s work in challenging the discrimination and exclusion that people with convictions face. In 2009, Christopher was promoted to Information and Advice Manager and in 2011 was promoted to Head of Projects & Services, taking responsibility for the Unlocking Banking Project, as well supervising our volunteer information and advice workers, drawn from nearby prisons.
2010 – 2012: Volunteering
Volunteering became intrinsic to the development of many aspects of Unlock’s work including the delivery of our Information and Advice Service, editing our monthly publication, theRecord, research and writing. A scheme was devised to recruit, train and support prisoners in the community preparing for release and others in the community with past convictions. Not only did this improve Unlock’s effectiveness but also provided huge benefits to the individuals themselves through personal development and the acquisition of skills and competencies for their future resettlement.
2012 – 2013: Transition
On 1 April 2012, Chris Bath was appointed to the post of Executive Director of Unlock. The appointment was a key part of a strategic change process initiated by Bobby Cummines, who formally retired after 10 years with the charity. Succession planning had been a key focus for Bobby prior to retirement and the Board agreed with him that Chris’ seven year ‘apprenticeship’ provided him with the right mix of skills, understanding and passion to lead the next phase of Unlock’s development.
Working with Pilotlight once more, Chris developed a three-year Strategic Plan (2013-16), which focused on developing and expanding the provision of Unlock’s core Information and Advice to deliver a face-to-face service in the community for those who are hardest to reach. The organisation should become more service oriented with a staff profile geared towards delivery and with a more streamlined management structure. Having succeeded in his mission to provide Unlock with a clear and detailed, evidence-based plan for work Chris went on to accept a post as CEO for another charity, leaving Unlock well-placed to begin delivery of his vision and the recruitment of junior staff.
2013 to today
In 2013 the board adopted a co-director model of management. Julie Harmsworth was appointed Director of Operations and Christopher Stacey as Director of Services. In 2015, the job titles for Julie and Chris were amended to simply ‘Co-director’, each reporting to the Chair with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, working closely together to achieve Unlock’s objectives. The board too reviewed its composition with long standing members standing down to make way for fresh input in light of the charity’s exciting future plans.