Thousands in England and Wales locked out of jobs because of mistakes in youth, campaigners say

Thousands of people risk being unfairly locked out of jobs because of mistakes in their youth, campaigners have said, as new data showed childhood offences were disclosed in more than 11,000 criminal records checks last year.

Politicians and justice campaigners are calling for a reform to the criminal records check system. They say the widespread release of minor historical offences does not protect the public and leaves people with no opportunity for a clean slate.

More than a third of the childhood offences set out in Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificates in England and Wales in 2021 happened more than 40 years ago. The oldest was a 74-year-old conviction for simple larceny (petty theft without violence).

Thousands of people are also still having to disclose decades-old adult cautions and historical, irrelevant offences in routine criminal records checks every year. Cautions were released in more than 23,000 DBS certificates last year, more than 8,000 of which were a decade or more old.

The government data was released under freedom of information to FairChecks, a campaign backed by justice charities pressing for reform of the system. It is calling for an end to cautions being automatically revealed in checks; to wipe the slate clean for childhood offences and to stop forcing people to reveal short prison sentences for ever.

Penelope Gibbs of FairChecks, said: ​​“For too long reform of criminal records checks has languished in the ‘too difficult’ box. Of course we need some checks. But our disproportionate system ruins lives by forcing people to disclose relatively minor crimes to employers decades on.

“Rehabilitation involves allowing people to move on in their lives. The government could facilitate that by making criminal checks fairer.”

A supreme court ruling meant the rules were changed in November 2020 so that cautions for under-18s are no longer automatically released – though adult ones still are. But youth convictions, including those so minor they result in a community or suspended sentence, are still automatically released in DBS certificates. These should stop appearing in the most basic checks after five-and-a-half years, but continue to be released on enhanced certificates.

Shami Chakrabarti, the former shadow attorney general for England and Wales, said disclosing childhood offences and historical cautions damaged people’s life chances and was a matter of cross-party concern in the Lords.

“There’s been a huge move towards encouraging people to accept police cautions in recent decades without proper legal advice. And these cautions are then attracting greater legal and practical consequences for their lives in the years to come,” she said.

“It’s not helping us to rehabilitate people. It’s all part of turning more and more people from citizens into suspects.”

The criminal records vetting system was toughened up after the 2002 Soham murders. Ian Huntley, who murdered the schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, had been reported to police on six occasions over sexual assaults on underage girls but was still cleared to be a school caretaker.

The reforms were designed to make it easier to identify potential predators and block them from working or volunteering with vulnerable people. But there are concerns that the wide release of historical irrelevant convictions, particularly in enhanced checks, is making it impossible for people to rebuild their lives.

Those working with young or vulnerable people are subject to enhanced checks, which means the police can disclose even minor decades-old interactions that resulted in no charge.

Wera Hobhouse MP, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, said: “The government must commit to reforming criminal record disclosure rules so that people do not have to declare irrelevant old and minor convictions that could impact their future.

“These figures prove that the government’s ‘look tough’ approach on crime is simply not working.

“If the Conservatives were serious about reducing crime rates they should put dignity and respect at the heart of our criminal justice system.”

When crimes become “spent” they no longer have to be automatically disclosed but many employers, such as schools, care homes and hospitals, require more advanced background checks.

Any offence resulting in a prison sentence, even if it is suspended or committed as a child, will be disclosed for life in all but the most basic checks.

This means thousands of people have to declare very short sentences, for example, for petty theft or drug possession, for life. In 2020,6,500 people were sentenced to less than a month in prison.

More than 31,000 certificates detailed prison sentences last year, of which more than a quarter were suspended.

The Ministry of Justice said: “Protecting the public is our number one priority and those sentenced to the most serious crimes will have convictions on their records for life.

“At the same time, reformed low-level offenders shouldn’t be held back by their criminal records, which is why we have already reduced the time it takes for their convictions to be spent.”

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