It’s about a decade since we first started work on developing an online tool to help people work out if they need to tell employers and others about their criminal record.
It was around 2009 when we started to receive an increasing number of calls to our helpline from people wanting to know if – and when – their convictions became ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. This was at a time when the Disclosure and Barring Service didn’t issue basic checks, so it was difficult for people to get this answer from the government. As a small charity with limited resources, and given many people felt uncomfortable ringing up and providing sensitive personal details over the phone, we knew there was a better solution.
The concept was simple – an online tool that worked this out. Ultimately, our aim was that as many people as possible could get instant results online to the question “when does my criminal record become spent”.
In practice, it was a lot more difficult than that. The law is complicated, and so after a lot of hard work, we launched www.disclosurecalculator.org.uk in October 2011, having had a small grant from a foundation to develop it. We were pleased to have Lord McNally, who was the Minister of State for the Ministry of Justice at the time, speak at the launch event. He congratulated Unlock on “achieving what some previously considered impossible”.
It’s been going for over 8 years now, and over 200,000 people have used the calculator in the last 4 years alone. Roughly 55% of users find that all their convictions are spent, with about 40% getting results with some unspent convictions. Perhaps most notably, about 5% of users get a result that means their conviction will remain unspent for the rest of their life.
The calculator itself has been through several phases of development – initially, you had to ‘login’ to use the tool, but we soon realised this was a barrier to use and once we removed this, the number of uses increased significantly. For a long time we also had a way for organisations to set up ‘multiple use’ accounts, because we know many organisations (like probation service providers and employment support organisations) find the tool an important way for their teams to support individuals in working out what they do and don’t need to disclose. This was also an important way for Unlock to cover the costs of maintaining the tool. We also put a lot of time into adjusting the tool in early 2014 so that it was in line with the positive reforms that were made as to when convictions became spent, which came into effect on the 10th March 2014.
We’re pleased that the tool is now fully open to anyone to use. We know that a huge range of organisations – employers, insurers, universities – use the tool, and we know from the feedback that people with criminal records (who remain by far the biggest user group) value being able to use a tool that’s hosted by an independent charity.
We’d never have developed the tool if one like it had already existed, and ever since we launched the tool, we’ve constantly tried to push the government to do more to make sure that people can understand if and when their convictions become spent. We’ve always thought that, while there’s many benefits to an independent charity like Unlock having a tool like this, it’s also important that the government did more to help people with this.
In 2017, the Justice Committee published a report on their inquiry into the disclosure of youth criminal records, which Unlock had been heavily involved in. In the government’s response to this, there was a commitment to “updating guidance for ex-offenders on gov.uk to ensure that it is clear, consistent and easily accessible.”
So we’re pleased that the Ministry of Justice has been developing a tool to help people understand whether they need to disclose their criminal record. They are now seeking feedback on a ‘disclosure checker’, which they’re currently piloting. As it stands, the disclosure checker is far from the finished product – for example, it can only calculate single convictions at the moment and doesn’t cover motoring offences – but we’ve been contributing to its development from an early phase, and we’re continuing to support it so that it can be as effective as possible.
As with using our calculator, it’s important that practitioners, especially those tasked with helping individuals with disclosing criminal records don’t simply use tools like this as a replacement for providing specific information and advice – for example, probation providers have it in their contract to provide one-to-one support on this. So it’s important that practitioners continue to develop the skills and knowledge to be able to sit down and support individuals so that they understand the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and what it means to them.
There’s also an important question as to what extent a calculator is the right solution. The law is complex, and any calculator is only as good as the information put into it. Unlock doesn’t have access to police records so that was the only way it could run for us, but for the government, who can check police records, there’s an argument that there’s a better approach. Rather than having people work through a tool that relies on the information they put into it, instead the government could simply issue some form of free criminal record check which showed any current unspent convictions (like the current basic DBS check) but then also gave dates for when those convictions will become spent. This would overcome many of the issues that come with an online tool.
Looking back on our calculator, charities like Unlock innovate in spaces like this, but we also recognise our aim – we want as many people as possible to get instant results online to the question “when does my criminal record become spent”. It’s perhaps disappointing that it’s taken the government nearly a decade to get around to doing this themselves, and perhaps there’s a better way for the government to help people find out the answer to this important question. We’ll continue to work the government to try to improve people’s understanding on if and when their criminal record is spent.