19 January 2010: the case for the rehabilitation of offenders (amendment) bill

Speakers: Lord Dholakia and Paul Cavadino

Peter Bottomley MP
Lord Dear
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
Baroness Howells
Julie Morgan MP (in the chair)
Lord Judd
Baroness Masham of Ilton


In the absence of Lord Ramsbotham, Julie Morgan MP took the chair, saying that unfortunately she would need to leave the meeting early. Lord Hodgson agreed to take it on subsequently, if required.

Julie Morgan MP welcomed everyone to the meeting, and offered the apologies of Lord Corbett who was hosting a meeting for the Parliamentary Labour Party and Baroness Stern, who was speaking in Edinburgh. She welcomed Sara Llewellin, the chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust who fund PRT to provide the Secretariat for the group, to her first meeting.  She then introduced the speakers, Lord Dholakia and Paul Cavadino.  Lord Dholakia was the sponsor of this private member’s bill which would begin its committee stage in the Lords on 21st January.

Lord Dholakia thanked Julie Morgan for her introduction. He proposed to give just an overview of what he was trying to achieve with this bill in Parliament, whilst the detail would be filled in by Paul Cavadino. He was sure that most members would already know Paul Cavadino, who had been until recently the chief executive of Nacro.  He wanted to thank members of the group for their support in the debate on the second reading, on 11th December. He continued:

The purpose of my bill is to enact a series of changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. When I initially raised this debate in 2006, I had total support from the Conservative Party front bench spokesperson and also from the Minister. What I now find after the second reading is that there are some other views being expressed. I have the support, no problem, from the Conservative Party, but the minister seems to be slightly cool about the proposals.

But as far as I’m concerned, I want to take this bill through the House of Lords.  Once it has gone through the House of Lords I intend to open up discussion with the Justice Secretary Jack Straw to see if it is at all possible to take this bill to the Commons. Most of you know that the likely date of the General Election would not be beyond the first two weeks of May and in between there are a number of holidays. So whether I will have time to get it through successfully is questionable. But whatever happens I will be taking it forward.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I recommend every one of you to read an interesting article by Mary Riddell in today’s Telegraph. It talks about why it is necessary to look very carefully at the prison situation in this country and I encourage you to read it. Now what I am proposing, and the detail that Paul and I have worked out, is nothing new. Successive committees have commented, from as early as 1972, that there were not enough measures for looking at the rehabilitation of offenders. Then there was the 1974 Act, which we are talking about, which certainly assisted.

But the extent to which past sentences are still hanging about the necks of people coming out of prison is not helping. We felt it necessary to look at what has happened since 1974. The government set up a rehabilitation task force as early as 1999.  Later, a working party was set up to look at the whole issue, and this working party produced a report called Breaking the Circle. This report made a number of substantial recommendations, and almost all of these recommendations were accepted by the government. I was sure that from then onwards they were looking for a suitable time to produce a bill, or to incorporate these measures in any of the criminal justice legislation going before Parliament.  But to this day no such measures have gone through. So we thought it right and proper to take these measures forward in a private member’s bill,  either to force the government to come up with their own measures, or if not to try and get this through the Lords and Commons.

So what we are proposing is nothing new. In fact it simply lifts many of the arguments that came up, and the proposals that were accepted by the Home Office, from 1999 onwards. The working party was composed of various elements working in the criminal justice field. It wasn’t just one political party or one pressure group: there were a number of groups working together to try to establish a common thread, to assist offenders. Now let me stop at that stage, and ask Paul to give you more of the details.

Paul Cavadino began:

The research that’s been done, both in this country and world- wide, about the impact of employment on reoffending, indicates that an ex-offender who gets into and stays in a job is somewhere between a third and a half less likely to reoffend than an offender who remains unemployed.  So getting offenders into jobs is key to reducing reoffending, and it’s key to protecting the public from future offending. This bill is designed to remove some of the obstacles which offenders currently face in getting into employment.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was the first step.  What it did was to introduce rehabilitation periods after which offences become ‘spent ‘and don’t have to be declared when an ex-offender is applying for a job or for insurance. Over the years, that has helped many ex-offenders to apply for jobs without having to declare old or irrelevant convictions.

However the rehabilitation periods in the Act are sometimes very long.  So for example if you get a sentence of nine months in custody, it takes ten years for that offence to become spent. If you get a sentence of three months, it takes seven years before that sentence becomes spent.  For most non-custodial sentences, the rehabilitation period is five years.  But if you get a sentence of more than two and a half years - say for example if you get a three year sentence - that never becomes spent. So it means that there are many reformed offenders who have not offended for many years, who are no risk to anyone, but who always have to declare all their convictions, however long ago they committed the offences, if they are asked when they are applying for a job.

The former Home Secretary Jack Straw, currently the Secretary of State for Justice,   established a working group in 2001, which produced a report in 2002 called Breaking the Circle. This report assessed the way the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was working, and particularly it looked at how far it was achieving an effective balance between protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders. And it concluded that it wasn’t doing that, and that reform was needed – reform that would reduce the lengths of time which offenders had to wait before their sentences became spent, and that would also extend the benefits of the Act to sentences of more than two and a half years.

It looked at experience abroad, and it found that in most European countries the provisions were far more generous and far-reaching than those of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in this country.  In general, in other European countries, the equivalent legislation sets rehabilitation periods which are shorter than ours, and extends the benefits of those provisions to sentences of more than two and a half years. The working group made recommendations which would bring our legislation more into line with the provisions in other countries.

The working group consisted of a wide range of representatives of different types of organisations: government departments, criminal justice agencies, employers’ organisations, rehabilitation organisations, organisations like UNLOCK which represents reformed offenders. The report had the support of all those groups. It was a consensus approach, trying to get a better balance between protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders.

The government published a response to the report in 2003 in which it accepted most of the recommendations, although it made some modifications and some amendments. The version of reform which the government said it would support in 2003 was basically that the current rehabilitation periods should go, and in their place, anybody who got a non custodial sentence should have the offence become spent after the end of the sentence plus a ‘buffer period’, as it was called, of an additional year. Anybody who got a custodial sentence of less than four years should have the offence become spent after the end of the sentence, including any post release supervision, plus an additional buffer period of two years. And for anyone who got a custodial sentence of more than four years, their offence should be come spent at the end of the sentence including post release supervision, plus an additional buffer period of four years.

Now if those provisions were implemented it would mean that many offenders who don’t come within the provisions of the Act at the moment, because they are serving sentences of longer than two and a half years, would eventually be in a position where their offences became spent. And it would mean that those offenders who do currently come within the provisions of the Act would have to wait for shorter periods than at present before their offences become spent. So that it would mean that many offenders would find it easier to get jobs, and easier to get insurance, when they have committed offences a considerable time ago but since then have stayed out of trouble, have become rehabilitated and reformed
One of the things that the working group found, which surprised many of the members but which nevertheless is true, was that if an offender stays out of trouble for two years, if they have no further convictions, then statistically their chances of reoffending are no higher than an ordinary group of people in the community who have not got a previous criminal record. It’s a very striking statistic and it does emphasise how important it is to try to ensure that at the earliest practicable stage we do everything possible to assist offenders into the employment that can help to provide a stake in society, a legitimate income, a status and a sense of self worth, and a reduced chance of reoffending.

Now the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act has a range of exemptions. There is a range of jobs and professions for which people applying for jobs always have to declare their convictions and cautions, however long ago they received them.  They are positions working with children and young people, involving regular and unsupervised access to children and young people, jobs working with vulnerable adults, senior positions in financial institutions, jobs involving national security or jobs in criminal justice agencies. A range of professions and jobs of that kind are exempted from the Act and so a person applying for one of those posts always has to declare all of their convictions, however long ago the offence was committed. The recommendations of the working group would not change those exemptions.

The rehabilitation of offenders amendment bill which Lord Dholakia has introduced, and which has its committee stage on Thursday, is based entirely on what the government said it would support in 2003.  The bill has been framed in line with that, and with what the Conservative front bench also said it would support in the debate in the House of Lords in 2008. Many of us would like ideally to go further. There is an excellent briefing paper about the bill, for example,  which has been produced by UNLOCK, the national association of reformed offenders, which is on their website, which makes a series of proposals for taking the provisions contained in this bill further. But the bill as it stands is deliberately framed to maximise consensus, in a way that is trying to achieve something tangible, which would improve the position for many offenders.  It is based on recommendations which had a wide degree of support from many different types of agency both inside and outside of the criminal justice process, and which has in the past received a strong degree of all party support. So it’s perfectly possible to put forward a strong and sensible argument for going beyond the provisions of the bill.  But the provisions in the bill are designed to achieve an important step forward that would help considerably to provide greater fairness for ex-offenders, and to ensure that they don’t suffer double punishment, in addition to the sentence of the court, by being refused jobs on the grounds of convictions that don’t make them a danger or a risk – a refusal which will only increase their chances of reoffending.