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Our criminal records system is broken and needs radical reform

Penelope Gibbs
19 May 2017

Currently anyone who was convicted of shop-lifting twice when they were 12 has to declare those convictions if they apply to be a traffic warden at the age of 50. Even if they have never again been in trouble with the law since the age of 12.

Our outdated criminal records system is holding our country back. Post Brexit, we need to make progress as a society through reforming the system. Those with talent and skills are held back by both bits of the system – the need to declare a recent conviction to any prospective employer and the need to declare almost any conviction or caution when applying for certain “sensitive” jobs.  The problems of the current system are:

  • it lacks evidence. “Safeguarding” is the catch-all term used to justify the rules, but there is no evidence that the rules, as currently framed, are necessary for safeguarding, or that other measures might be more effective in safeguarding people from harm.
  • it is immensely complicated – so complicated that many lawyers, practitioners and employers don’t understand it, and breach the rules or give wrong advice unwittingly. The only person I know who understands all the intricacies of the system is Chris Stacey of Unlock and even he can be foxed by some questions (ironically about driving offences which should be simple).
  • it is one of the biggest barriers to rehabilitation. People who want to move on from a life of crime, or just from one very stupid mistake, need to be able to work. Work brings money, self esteem and a community. If willing, talented people are often ruled out of jobs because of their record (which they currently are), everyone loses out.
  • The punishment does not fit the crime. Our criminal records system gives a life sentence to people who have done minor crimes, by making them declare offences committed decades previously. This isn’t proportionate, or fair.

But there is ray of light in an unexpected place.  The Conservative Manifesto promises to bring in a one year national insurance “holiday” for employers who take on ex-offenders.  This is a fantastic proposal, which will both reward those enlightened employers who already welcome those trying to turn their lives around, and encourage more to do the same.  But it won’t change the system itself.  And on that the government appears to be playing a different tune.

An important test case on criminal records has been working its way through the courts for many a year. Its about whether it is fair to force people who have two convictions or cautions (however minor, committed from aged ten upwards), to declare them when applying for certain types of work eg as a traffic warden. Liberty, some great lawyers and courageous complainants won the latest round against the government when the Court of Appeal ruled in their favour on 3rd May. I understand that the government is appealing that verdict, which means they support the current position – that someone who was convicted of shoplifting twice aged twelve should have to declare this when applying to be a traffic warden aged 50.

These are mixed messages from the government – on the one hand being willing to forgo thousands of pounds in national insurance to encourage employers to take on ex-offenders, on the other hand spending thousands on lawyers to defend a law on declaring criminal records that few believe makes sense. I just hope that, whoever wins the election, they will follow the spirit of the Tory manifesto pledge and reform our broken criminal records system.  The current system is holding our country and our economy back.