Commenting on today’s announcement (16 September) by the Ministry of Justice on plans to make changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and the disclosure of criminal records, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:
Unlock very much welcomes and supports today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary that disclosure periods for criminal records will be reduced. If these proposals proceed to statute, it will mean more people with criminal records being able to get jobs and make a positive contribution to society. The current criminal records disclosure system does little to promote rehabilitation or serve public protection, but it does result in people being locked out of jobs and opportunities, often for the rest of their life, because of a criminal record that serves as a second sentence.
England and Wales has one of the most punitive criminal record disclosure regimes in Europe – and there’s no evidence that it’s reducing crime. Getting people with convictions into work, supporting their families and contributing to the economy is one of the best ways of making communities safer. Evidence shows that more than half of men, and three quarters of women who receive a conviction, will never be convicted again.
Today’s announcement that some sentences of over four years in prison will no longer have to be disclosed when applying for most jobs if people are conviction-free seven years after completing their sentence is a positive step forward. We have long campaigned for a system that enables all convictions to become ‘spent’ at some point. For those that these proposals apply to, once they have completed their rehabilitation period they will no longer be required to disclose their conviction for most jobs or education courses, nor for housing or insurance.
However, more than 8,000 people every year receive sentences of over four years and today’s proposals have wide-ranging exclusions which we understand will mean that around two-thirds of people sentenced to more than four years in prison will continue to have a lifelong ‘never spent’ conviction.
The risk of reoffending is consistently lower for those who have served longer sentences, and data on reoffending by index offence shows sexual and violent offences have lower rates of reoffending than many other categories. Exclusions by offence type risk creating unfairness and anomalies at the margins, further entrenching racial injustice and embedding the idea that some people are inherently incapable of rehabilitation. We do not believe that to be the case.
We have long-supported Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill, and the proposals in that Bill are a pragmatic attempt to see positive change, given the rehabilitation periods for adults were recommended in the Breaking the Circle report in 2003, and accepted by the government of the time. The proposals today fall short by comparison.
Making changes so that more people have their convictions become spent sooner is a positive change. However, there is little point in having more people reach this stage if employers can continue to discriminate. There are fundamental questions as to how effective the legislation is in a society where information remains online and employers regularly ask about spent convictions even if they are not entitled to know about them.
The government needs to make sure that the legislation does what it is intended to do – give people a chance to live free from the stigma of their past. Today’s proposals do nothing to address these issues, which is why we continue to call for a root-and-branch review of the criminal records regime.
Everyone should have the opportunity to unleash their potential and make a positive contribution to society. Everyone should have the opportunity of a fresh start. We hope the government will listen and make sure that law-abiding people with convictions have a real chance to move on with their lives without their criminal record hanging over them.
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Notes to editors
- Unlock is an independent, award-winning national charity that provides a voice and support for people with convictions who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence.
- There are over 11 million people in the UK that have a criminal record.
- Unlock’s website is www.unlock.org.uk.
- High-resolution images for media use are available from Unlock’s Flickr account.
- Spent convictions can still be disclosed for jobs working with children or vulnerable adults, or in some trusted professions. What shows up on standard and enhanced DBS checks is determined by the filtering rules.
Below are case studies of individuals where their conviction will remain a lifelong ‘never spent’ conviction because their offences are excluded under the proposals by the Ministry of Justice.
Case study – Ian
Ian joined his well-known firm in the early 1990s when few employers asked about criminal records. Over the years he developed his skills and now managed the office, earning a good salary.
In 2019, the firm introduced new HR systems and retrospectively carried out basic DBS checks on all staff. Ian had been sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in the 1980s for his involvement in an armed robbery. Ian explained this to his employer, hopeful that his 25 years of service and exemplary work record would stand him in good stead. Despite this, the firm let Ian go – they said they couldn’t risk anyone finding out that one of their employees had an unspent conviction. Ian is claiming JSA while he looks for work.
Case study – Amir
At 17 Amir was convicted, under joint enterprise, for a serious assault on a man. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison. On release, he moved with his family to a new area and completed qualifications in business and IT. Amir eventually started a small business from home doing computer repairs and providing training.
Now 29, Amir applied for a job in the training department of one of the big four accounting firms. After a telephone interview, assessment centre and face-to-face interview Amir was selected over the 18 other candidates. On receiving the offer, Amir disclosed his unspent conviction. The HR manager told him someone would be in touch. After three months of waiting, Amir contacted the UK Director of HR who said the company had a policy of not employing anyone with an unspent conviction.
Case study – Anne
Anne was convicted of the manslaughter of her husband and sentenced to 7 years. At her trial it was accepted that she was suffering from a psychiatric condition resulting from her husband’s abusive behaviour over two decades. Anne is out of prison now and volunteers as a speaker for a charity that supports victims of domestic abuse.
Anne has applied for part-time work at a supermarket and a high street retailer but has been turned down both times because of her unspent conviction. She felt the interviewers were sympathetic when she disclosed but afterwards was told it was ‘company policy’ not to employ anyone with an unspent conviction.