I beg to move,
That this House has considered the First Report of the Justice Committee, Disclosure of youth criminal records, HC 416, and the Government response, Cm 9559.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the House for giving us the opportunity to debate the report, and my friends and colleagues on the Select Committee on Justice who contributed to it. I am glad to see such a good turnout when other things are happening today as well.
This is an important issue, and not merely a technical one. Although some of the law and regulations around it are complex, we have concluded that it directly affects people’s lives and that the current state of our arrangements is frankly unsatisfactory and unfit for purpose. The gist of what we say is that change is needed, and so far we detect a lack of urgency in addressing that. As a consequence, injustice and frankly social harm are being done by the failure to modernise a system that has not kept pace with developments in a number of areas.
I will first address the background to our report. In October 2016, the Justice Committee in the previous Parliament decided to launch an inquiry into disclosure of youth criminal records, partly as a follow-up to the inquiry that we had conducted on the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system, a substantial report in itself, and partly because of a number of representations that we had received from the non-governmental organisation sector. I refer particularly to the evidence that has been given to us by Unlock and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, and pay tribute to the work that those organisations do in this field.
In consequence, we had an inquiry in which we took oral and written evidence, but we also held a private seminar with individuals who had been personally affected by this problem. I think many policy makers would benefit from seeing and hearing from those people face to face about the real effects of the system upon them. They were able to talk about the effect on them of their childhood offences—that is the point, as we are often not talking about recent offences, but offences committed when they were children—being disclosed when they were adults, often some time down the track.
One of the many unforeseen consequences of the dissolution of Parliament in May 2017 was that the Committee was unable to produce its report, so one of our first decisions in this Parliament was to revisit it and produce an updated report on what we regard as an important issue, basing it on the evidence that our predecessor Committee had already heard. We published a report on 27 October 2017.
Having set out the chronology, let me give an overview of the background to the system. The criminal records disclosure regime, as I am sure many hon. Members know, is operated by the Disclosure and Barring Service, or DBS. For certain professional jobs, and certainly for work involving contact with children or vulnerable adults, the DBS has for perfectly good reasons to provide a standard or enhanced disclosure certificate, which can disclose all criminal records. That includes criminal records that otherwise would be regarded as spent.
There is a so-called filtering system, which allows some spent criminal records to be filtered out of disclosure so that they will not be revealed on the standard or enhanced DBS certificates. The idea behind the filtering system was that it was supposed to allow the disclosure regime to operate in a more proportionate manner, but the evidence that we have heard drives us to the conclusion that, in practice, the filtering system incorporates some significant exceptions, meaning that many offences are not filterable throughout the lifetime of an offender.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the UK system for disclosure of childhood criminal records is among the harshest in the world when compared with equivalent developed countries? Although I am a believer in a firm justice system that punishes crimes appropriately, I do not think it is fair for people to have to live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of terrible mistakes they may have made in childhood.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend; that is precisely the problem. The disclosure system is an immensely blunt instrument and forgets that, as well as being a punishment, any sensible criminal justice system must encourage reform and rehabilitation. Whatever the no doubt good intentions behind it, the way the system operates is counterproductive in that regard.
For people who perhaps did not have the most advantaged background, let us suppose there is a fight in a school playground that leads to the police being called. That might lead to a conviction for actual bodily harm that is non-filterable. Yet, if they had been born in more affluent circumstances, I am quite sure the police would never have been called and that person would never have gone on to have their life blighted in the same way. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that this fact is not an impediment to social mobility?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically significant and thoughtful point. I can think of instances both from my constituency casebook and from childhood friends of mine who got into exactly that situation. That is not what the system was intended for. He is right that it is without doubt discriminatory in a number of regards.
The hon. Gentleman is recalling childhood friends of his own, but will he also reflect on childhood today? There are a whole suite of crimes and temptations resulting from social media—let us think of sexting, where someone might get a criminal offence aged 15 or 16 for inappropriate behaviour with a girlfriend or whoever. Can it really be right that an employer, years later when the person is into their early 30s, should need or want that information? If the employer gets that information, what exactly are they expected to do about it? I am thinking of us, employing young people; do we really want to know that that happened 10 years ago?
That is, again, an entirely fair and perceptive point, and it is quite true. One of the other issues that we have not yet touched on, but that I hope we will in the course of the debate, is the way that the system no longer reflects modern technology and the ability to Google to find out other things about people. None of that was there when this scheme was set in place. Surely the objective is to be proportionate and to be relevant, but that is not the case at the moment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this impactful debate. He has mentioned the impact of new technology, particularly Google, and it is a matter for great concern that everything that has happened in an individual’s past is stored in perpetuity on the internet. Does he agree that the fact that information is easily available for so long can render the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 essentially toothless, and that that is something we ought to look further at in this place?
Again, my hon. Friend raises a fair point—it is not the immediate subject of our inquiry, but it is a good point. Perhaps, in our joint work on the Select Committee, that is something we could look at taking forward, because there is no doubt that that legislation has also failed to keep in touch with changes in science and technology.
Further to exactly that point, although it is not directly relevant to the discussion here, we must all accept the fact that that information is held independently and above that which we can legislate for in this place. I am aware that work is coming forward from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to address that, but, in all honesty, although we can tamper at the edges and change things in ways that make us feel better and directly make the lives of young offenders better, unless we can control how information about private individuals is used, we can have very little effect on the future.
That is certainly true, and it indicates the need for a much more joined-up and holistic approach to dealing with this matter. I am sure it is something we need to return to and address. Although it can only deal with a part of that problem, disclosure and barring needs to be resolved itself. The updating of the whole approach to dealing with criminal records, disclosure of information and the regulation of social media is important, because all of them can get in the way of helping people to turn their lives around.
The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) about examples from other countries is significant. Our criminal justice system has some of the worst reoffending results among our comparators, and one reason for that is the difficulty of getting people back into employment, education, homes, work and relationships. To a greater or lesser degree, the mechanistic operation of the current disclosure and barring system can be a bar to people moving on in those directions, all of which, the evidence overwhelmingly shows, make people less likely to reoffend. We are getting in the way of that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cumulative impact of disclosing youth criminal records is an avoidable barrier to employment, education and housing, which can be devastating for a young person and can lead to long-term adverse effects way into adulthood?
Yes it is, and the evidence, as I will perhaps demonstrate if I make a bit more progress, shows exactly that. That is entirely the problem that we find. The particular difficulty is that the system is not only mechanistic but is in practice arbitrary—there is no real discretion—and has no right of appeal to speak of. None of those can be just.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and others pointed out, certain things can be filtered out, but it is arbitrary. A single conviction can be filtered out, provided it did not result in a custodial sentence, was not for a listed offence—broadly, a serious offence, although that is probably not the issue most of us would take, as other bits come into it later—and that more than 11 years have elapsed since the date of the convictions. All the evidence suggests that, nowadays, for young men in particular, maturity and desisting from criminal behaviour kicks in around the age of 25. Eleven years back from that, they could have been convicted as a teenager for exactly the sort of stupid incident that my hon. Friend referred to, which would then not be filterable at a time when they seek to move into education and work. That is an obstacle, as the evidence clearly shows, and it is no longer realistic, in our submission.
Single offences can be filtered provided that the sentence was non-custodial and was not a listed offence, as well as that more than 11 years have elapsed since the date of the conviction, or more than five and a half years if the person was under 18. That could still be within a key time when they are moving into their mid-20s and getting jobs.
Are there not two further problems? First, the Government’s response seems to be that employers should exercise discretion, but many small employers play safety first, do not exercise discretion and just treat any disclosure as a bar to employment. A second area that causes considerable problems for many people is that if they move between police areas that can cause considerable delays as their case moves between those areas, and again they lose out on those opportunities. That is economically inefficient, and it is also devastating on their lives in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes.
That is absolutely right, and it tallies with some of the examples given to us directly by people who have been through the system. I agree entirely that it does not make sense.
Let us look at the remaining bits of the system. We have filtering for single convictions. Single or multiple cautions for lesser offences can be filtered out once six years have elapsed, or two years if the person was under 18 at the time. That structure is complicated enough, frankly, but we then get to what we cannot filter, including convictions and cautions for listed offences and multiple convictions for lesser offences, no matter how long ago they happened and regardless of the circumstances.
Those of us who have practised criminal law could think of many instances in which it is perfectly possible to charge more than one offence arising out of the same set of facts. For example, ABH and a theft, both of which ended up in a conditional discharge or a fine; two offences of theft; or two assaults, because more than one person was involved in a stupid fight. Those are multiple and cannot be filtered, however much time has gone by. That, to us, seems to be nonsense. The view of many witnesses to our inquiry is that the system is complex and arbitrary. It is a blunt instrument, it is restrictive and it is disproportionate. It has exactly the problems that the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned.
I completely agree on the need for flexibility in the system. If we are interested in the rehabilitation and support for offenders, there is an argument that, for example, schools should be told something of the past activity of an individual, particularly if mental health issues were involved, so that they can provide the necessary support to make sure that the individual is looked after.
It is ironic. At the moment we have a box-ticking exercise in which a conviction can be disclosed. As the right hon. Member for Warley rightly said, an employer may well have 200 applicants for a post so will simply play safe and delete anybody who has ticked the conviction box, regardless of how relevant that is for the job that they seek to employ a person to do. That is a burden for a small employer.
However, frequently when people apply for jobs through large employment agencies, it is almost as if an algorithm exists and that anyone who ticks the box is automatically filtered out by the computer system before their application gets any farther. None of those show the level of discretion that was perhaps anticipated when the scheme was drawn up. But it is not fair to push the burden on to employers. There is an obligation on the state and Government to set up a fair and appropriate regime that gives them comfort that they can make appropriate checks and that equally helps people to rehabilitate themselves.
The other point is the disproportionate impact on young people. That may seem obvious, but I do not think it is really recognised by those who run the system. The qualifying period of five and a half years is a great proportion of a child’s life, and is perhaps one of the most critical portions of a young person’s life as they grow up, mature and move into the employment, work and qualification phase. To have this hanging over them then, rather than further down the track, could not come at a worse time. There is not enough recognition of that.
The Law Commission gave compelling evidence to us, observing that the filtering regime might be well regarded as disproportionately harsh on young offenders. Our report concluded that too many childhood offences are unfiltered, undermining rehabilitation and denying children—which is what they were at the time they committed the offences—a second chance. We urge the Government to revise that as a matter of urgency. We also heard powerful evidence on the adverse effect that childhood criminal records have on employment, education and housing, as well as on insurance and visas for travel—everyday things, not the obvious things that we think about. We heard clear evidence of the discriminatory and adverse impact of that.
My hon. Friend mentioned insurance, which includes car insurance. We rely on cars for our jobs, for pleasure and for all sorts of things. The way that insurance companies look out for these people is not very helpful at all and can leave people in difficult situations.
Absolutely. Because it is blunt, employers and insurers will inevitably take the risk-averse approach. I do not entirely blame them for doing that; the system does not help them to be proportionate and more careful in their judgment than would otherwise have been the case. We also concluded that there is clear evidence of particular impacts on black and minority ethnic children and those who came through the care system, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham hinted.
The hon. Gentleman is making extremely good points. It is a thorough and excellent report on changing things for young people in the justice system. He mentioned young people in the justice and care systems. Does he agree that many issues arising at that time in a young person’s life are almost a cry for help because of adverse childhood experiences, particularly trauma? We need to do more within the system on help and remediation rather than directly on punishment.
That, too, is a fair point. Certainly my experience as a lawyer representing people coming through the system was that there were instances of serious behaviour that had to be punished, but very often—this was particularly the case with younger offenders—offenders are also victims of other offending and there are underlying causes that too blunt an approach, such as that which we have, does not help.
We made a number of recommendations. Rehabilitation periods under the 1974 Act should be reduced. There should be an urgent review of the filtering regime, for the reasons we have set out. There should be a presumption against disclosure of so-called non-conviction intelligence, which is held on the police national database. That is legitimate for intelligence purposes, but there should not be arbitrary disclosure of it in the way in which that happens at the moment, particularly where the allegations on the database were made during someone’s childhood. Individuals should have a right to apply for a review prior to disclosure of their criminal record. That exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in England and Wales, and we see no reason for that distinction.
The Ban the Box approach, which has been pioneered under recent Governments and is used by some employers, delays the point at which a job applicant discloses criminal records to a prospective employer. That is sensible because it allows the employer, first, to look at the application on its merits and then, if disclosure is appropriate, to see whether the conviction makes any difference to the person’s employability.
The hon. Gentleman is rightly and very ably identifying all the issues that the current system causes for individuals and their families and therefore the impact on society if they fail to be rehabilitated. Is not there also an overall, macroeconomic issue, particularly as a number of employers are expressing concerns about shortfalls in labour either leading up to or following Brexit? Artificially restricting people from working and, indeed, from advancing is not just bad for those individuals, shocking though that is, but very bad for society and the economy.
That is an unanswerable point, because we can see that people who are kept unwillingly in economic inactivity—
Or low-paid jobs.
Low-paid and unsatisfactory jobs create burdens at every level, so the point is entirely true.
Let me just make one more point and then I will give way. I want to deal with the Government response to our report and then I will happily give way again.
Those were the guts, to put it inelegantly, of our recommendations. The Ban the Box approach should be extended to all public sector vacancies, with a view to that becoming in due course mandatory for all employers. That would be the right response. We pointed out also that the disclosure regime may well fall short of the UK’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child, which prioritises the best interests of the child and requires states parties to promote the establishment of penal laws and procedures “specifically applicable to children”. The broad-brush approach here does not seem to us to meet that test.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned Ban the Box in a positive light, and I am sure everyone in the Chamber would welcome it, but does he acknowledge that the problem with that initiative is, first, that it is voluntary and, secondly, that it is about the recruitment stage? The fundamental point about the work by the Select Committee and others who have raised this issue is that, beyond recruitment, there are questions about whether things should be disclosed to employers in the first place. It would be important for the Government not to lose that principle, which is rightly being raised by the hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee.
That is true. We do not see Ban the Box as a silver bullet; there is no single silver bullet. It is a sensible initiative and one that has been started, but we see it as a base on which to build rather than a solution itself. However, it would not be too difficult for the Government to extend it eventually along the lines that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. It is of course to be welcomed that Ban the Box has, as I understand it, been adopted in principle for civil servant recruitment, but I wonder how many people who are former offenders the Ministry of Justice would be able to employ in its own Department. This is just a proposition. To what degree within procurement could there be concomitant employment of ex-offenders in, say, maintenance contracts and other contracts that the Department releases?
We talked about extending the initiative to all public sector vacancies, and I can see the logic of making this a condition of public procurement more generally. It is an interesting point that the right hon. Lady fairly raises. Like her, I would be interested to hear my the Minister’s response. These levers are within the Government’s gift and there would be no requirement for primary legislation or anything of that kind.
Against that background, we were disappointed in the Government’s response. It was not entirely negative, but it did seem to us to lack a degree of urgency. It cited the litigation on criminal records that was ongoing at that time in the Supreme Court as a reason not to go into too much detail on most of our important recommendations. There was almost a predictive text response of, “It would not be appropriate to consider these matters until there has been an authoritative judgment from the Supreme Court.” That has now changed, as I will come to.
I recognise and welcome the positives in the Government response. The Government accepted parts of the report, in particular the commitment to improving information and guidance and exploring options for promoting Ban the Box—one of those has been suggested by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—and there is willingness to work with the insurance industry to ensure that it operates more fairly in relation to spent convictions. I say to the Minister that that is all good, but we need more.
A concern for us was how policy is difficult to drive forward because it sits uneasily between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. That is a classic case of a desirable change falling through the gap between two Departments. If we are committed to more cross-governmental working, more could and should be done.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I pay tribute to his leadership of the Select Committee. He has not touched so much on the conclusions in the report about people aged between 18 and 25. The report said that consideration should be given to extending the filtering to young people. My view is that that is a bridge too far and we should focus purely on under-18s, but does he want to say anything about whether he thinks we should look at a filtering system for young people in that category?
As my hon. Friend will remember from his time on the Committee, that is linked to earlier work in relation to young adults in the criminal justice system. I made the point earlier that we now know from overwhelming evidence that maturity and desistance from crime tend to kick in, particularly among young males, at age 25 or so. That is where that suggestion comes from. I agree. Rome was not built in a day, and we have to operate the system in a way that maintains public confidence and the confidence of employers where there are legitimate grounds for caution. Let us be honest: sometimes there are, and there always will be. We put the point in the report as part of the broader context. I hope that when in due course we get time to debate important issues of domestic legislation, rather than having the groundhog approach that we seem to have on other matters at the moment, perhaps that more holistic approach to young offenders will be appropriate, but it is not a reason to hold back the specific recommendations that we make about younger people, which we suggest should be moved urgently.
The Supreme Court judgment was cited as a reason for the Government not wishing to commit themselves. I understand that, but the Supreme Court has given its judgment, so the Government can move forward with a clear conscience. That judgment was of course in the joined cases of P, G and W and Lorraine Gallagher, who, being overage, could be named in that context. All the cases challenged various aspects of the filtering regime and dealt with a number of the issues to which we have referred. They all involved people who had been convicted of or reprimanded for relatively minor offending, and the disclosure of their criminal records had created barriers to employment, or there was a reasonable expectation that they would do so in the future.
The Court of Appeal concluded that the multiple conviction rule and the serious offence rule, without a mechanism for refinement, were not
“in accordance with the law”
as required by paragraph 2 of article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which protects the right to respect for private life, as they did not allow proportionality to be considered in any particular case. It is that bluntness and lack of proportionality that we think now need to be addressed urgently.
The Government, to our regret, appealed against that decision rather than acting on the Court of Appeal suggestions. They lost in the Supreme Court on the principal matters. The legal approach was somewhat different. They succeeded in one appeal but, broadly, the Supreme Court agreed that there should be a declaration of incompatibility under the Human Rights Act 1998 against the multiple convictions rule. We call upon the Government to deal with that declaration of incompatibility and reform the law accordingly to bring it into accordance with our convention obligations and, frankly, the requirements of the 1998 Act.
Similarly, the mandatory disclosure of childhood reprimands was upheld in the Supreme Court, but on different grounds. Lord Sumption, who gave the Supreme Court’s lead judgment, looked at the second part of the test for lawfulness under article 8(2) of the convention, on whether the measure is
“necessary in a democratic society”.
In other words, he looked at whether the measure is proportionate. It failed that test.
Lord Sumption found that the legislation involving strict, predefined categories could in principle be proportionate, but then found that most of these could pass the test. However, he went on to decide that two features of the regime were disproportionate: the blunt instrument effect of multiple conviction rule, and allowing the disclosure of reprimands for serious offences when they were given to children. Those are two specific areas where it seems to us that there is no excuse at all for the Government not acting to fall into line with the judgment of the Court. We believe there is good reason for them going beyond that, too.
Since then, we have been in correspondence with the Government, drawing attention to these facts and the incompatibility, as we see it, of the Government’s current stance with the Supreme Court judgment. We urge the Government to deal with our outstanding recommendations and, in particular, to set out what steps are being taken to ensure that the DBS suspends the unlawful elements of the current regime without delay. We seek from the Government—perhaps the Minister can help us today—an update on how they now intend to address those elements of the regime to ensure that it fits the legal proportionality test in a meaningful and workable way.
The debate comes against that background. The Secretary of State replied, as always, in courteous terms, but mentioning the need to balance giving employers necessary information, which I concede. With respect to the individual’s right to private life, the Government said they will consider the Committee’s recommendations, but need to fully consider the implications of any change. They said that they are not able to respond formally at this time. When will they be able to respond formally? Lives are being damaged at the present time by this needless failure to comply.
That is why we are pressing for urgent action. The Government can deal with it very easily, it seems to us. They can use section 10 of the Human Rights Act to present to Parliament a remedial order to amend those parts of the disclosure regime that are incompatible with article 8 according to the Court’s judgments. Remedial orders to amend legislation and remove any incompatibilities can be statutory instruments. It does not, therefore, involve primary legislation and the time that that would involve. There is precedent for statutory instruments having been used on a number of occasions in the past.
If the Government do not take that step, they cannot really expect anything other than further legal challenge, and I do not want to see the Government putting themselves in that position. I hope they will take those remedial orders to bring our law into compliance, and that they use the opportunity to make an urgent and comprehensive review of the whole regime, particularly the impacts on those who offend as young children or adults. That is long-overdue for all the reasons that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have gave in interventions. I hope that sets the scene and enables colleagues to participate and raise their points, which may even shorten things later as the debate goes along.
I am hugely grateful to the Justice Committee for this excellent work and the way in which the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has outlined the importance of this area.
My concern with criminal records arose from the review that I did for the Government on the disproportionality of black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals within the criminal justice system. When I began that work, I did not really understand the effect that our criminal records regime was having on disproportionality.
It is important to fully understand that while this is an issue for all young people, whatever their backgrounds in the criminal justice system, we also know—following work done by the Department for Work and Pensions over the past two decades and a range of other research—that we are unfortunately still living in a society where people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have a penalty in the public sphere, in relation to employment. That penalty, unfortunately, is that there are still aspects of discrimination when ethnic minorities apply for employment, particularly for those who have a criminal record.
That is why this issue came under the purview of the report that I was asked to do by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and that I was pleased to present to Theresa May when she took over as Prime Minister. It is important to emphasise that I conducted that review in a cross-party spirit, as did the advisers to the review. I am pleased that the issue of disproportionality in our criminal justice system remains an issue that concerns all political parties in this House. It is above the day to day of politics.
Reoffending is estimated to cost the taxpayer between £9.5 billion and £13 billion per year. A third of those on jobseeker’s allowance in our country have previous convictions. We note very sadly that recidivism rates among black men in our country are the highest in the system, with 45% going on to reoffend within two years. That is extremely concerning.
However, this issue really came across to me when I met the Trident team of police officers in the Metropolitan police, who deal with gang violence day to day. They were the ones who said to me, “Could you put this into your review? We are aware of a group of offenders who reach about 25 or 26 years old and want to move away from their criminal past but continue to reoffend because, as they grow up, they cannot get a job due to the regime that we have.” That testimony of police officers dealing with those young men day to day persuaded me that this cohort get trapped into a life of crime at the point at which they want to get out of it.
I therefore did some further research. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a quite well known child psychologist on Radio 4, Professor Peter Jones, Dr Aamodt and many others have now established that the brain continues developing well into a person’s 20s before it concludes—perhaps not concludes, because I hope we are all still learning. It is now understood that adulthood really kicks in somewhere between 25 and 30, so for all those reasons it is important to think about the age of maturity.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is medical evidence that, up to the age of about 25, the brain’s development indicates that young men in particular are prone to an inappropriate attitude to risk? The research is clear about that, which reflects the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) with the criminal justice system. That is another reason why we should frame disclosure rules on youth criminal records differently from those related to offences committed later in life.
Absolutely. Those of us with teenage children—I had a firm word with my 13-year-old son yesterday, who had got into trouble at school—know that the assessment of risk and risky behaviour is important.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, as is his wont, but we need to keep our feet on the ground. I understand the point when it comes to 13 and 14-year-olds, but does he agree that there has to be a cut-off point for any measure, which we traditionally think of as 18? I say that because the brain may still be developing in a 24-year-old, but it would not garner public confidence in the system, and might undermine it, if they were able to have their serious conviction for violence, or whatever, filtered.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman and I will explain why. In my review, I talk about the German system, which makes an assessment of maturity and particularly focuses on the years between 18 and 21. He will probably recognise that in a previous era, and for some hon. Members present, the age of maturity in this country was 21; it fell down to 18. If we are to make evidence-based policy, it is important to keep that live, because of what the science suggests, although it may be that social media and other things are taking the age of maturity in the other direction.
Why does that become important? It was particularly important in my review because we should be very concerned that immature 18-year-olds are sitting in adult prisons with hardened criminals, being seriously groomed to commit more serious crimes. That is why, in Germany, they have gone in a different direction, and why I suggested that we could look harder at the psychological evidence for where the age of maturity lies.
To return squarely to the issue of criminal records, that is also why other regimes allow the young person, as they get into maturity—most often at the end of their 20s and the beginning of their 30s—to come back before a public official, such as a judge or a parole board, to make the case that they have been out of crime for several years, and that they have a wife and children, and have that record expunged or sealed. I recommended the Massachusetts system, because it allows the flexibility for responsible adults to make the judgment. For some young people, I am afraid that the judgment would be that it would not be sealed.
Let me be clear: a record is never sealed from the criminal justice system, the police or the courts. It is about whether it should be sealed from employers and where the burden is. If it is not to be sealed from employers, we must understand clearly that we are asking the taxpayer to pick up the bill. I repeat that one third of people on jobseeker’s allowance have committed criminal offences. That was my concern.
I ask the Government to reflect hard on the Taylor review that looked at youth justice. The Government will be aware that he said:
“As a point of principle, I believe that rehabilitation periods for childhood offending should be far shorter than for adult offenders. My proposals”
“to replace existing court sentences with tailored Plans developed by Children’s Panels”.
He coined the phrase that our system is tougher than Texas—it is one of the toughest regimes in the world.
The Select Committee report is really about balance, where the judgment should lie and whether it is out of kilter. The Supreme Court decision could be interpreted narrowly by the Government, but from reading the report, the Committee’s mood suggests that it is an opportunity, notwithstanding all that is going on in Parliament, for the Government to take a broader view and to review our criminal records regime.
My view is that there should be a balance between a rules-based system, which is largely what we have, and which is clearly cheaper—that is effectively why we have it, because there is time and one makes a judgment about spent convictions and disclosure—and a system that is slightly more sophisticated and might cost slightly more. There is a question about who pays. In the Canadian jurisdiction, the individuals seeking to get their criminal records looked at again pay for the system. In my view, a parole board, a magistrate or a judge could make the assessment.
I remind hon. Members that a 12-year-old child convicted of shoplifting two items of make-up on the same day will have to disclose that for life to work as a traffic warden; a 14-year-old reported to the police for sending naked pictures of themselves to a classmate, about which the police take no further action, could have to disclose that for life to work as a teacher; a 16-year-old cautioned for having sex with a 15-year-old partner will have to disclose that for life to work as a vet; and a 17-year-old given a four-month custodial sentence for breaching an order will have to disclose that for a year and a half when seeking to work in most supermarkets. The question is whether that balance is right.
I urge the Government to reflect hard on what we see of the job market, the double penalty that exists for minorities, and why recidivism rates are so high—because people are effectively trapped in unemployment. I want to make the case clearly that we have to give our young people from urban communities hope. The challenge of getting employment when someone reaches the age of maturity is a fundamental part of that. I urge the Minister to think hard about this area.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I will make a few comments about the impact of what we looked at in the report on education, housing and the insurance market. Those issues are adequately set out in the report, so I will just bring out a few points.
My starting point is the need to provide proper rehabilitation and support for people who have obtained a conviction, however they obtained it. If we do not come from that position when we discuss the subject, we are lost. Therefore, as I mentioned in my intervention, there is a great need to ensure that education institutions are aware of an individual’s particular needs. It may be that an individual has an admittedly spent conviction that came about because of mental health capacity needs. It is absolutely appropriate for the education establishment to know about that to provide the necessary support to make sure that he or she can be looked after in the best way.
It should not be possible, however, for an institution to act as in the case of the nurse who, at the age of 15, received a conviction for actual bodily harm for tackling a school bully. As a result, her place to study nursing at university was revoked and she had to appeal, which meant that she had to go through the process of explaining what had occurred. The decision was reversed, but after that woman had looked for jobs, she said she had found that her career progression was inhibited because of that spent conviction. That is where the unfairness in the system emerges, and it is why we need some of the flexibility that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mentioned.
The second area that I will touch on is housing. I need to tread carefully here, being a member of the Ministry concerned. However, there is a great case for making sure that the allocation of housing and the schemes to organise that allocation do not create avoidable barriers when it comes to providing people with accommodation.
We all know that accommodation is one of the best routes to stability and to providing an individual with a job and a good background. We need to encourage individuals to find accommodation. So I will just finish on housing by asking the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), if he can explain what conversations have been had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to take this process forward and to make sure that the issue is being addressed.
Lastly I will look at the issue of insurance, which we have already discussed briefly. In that area, we found a number of examples of avoidable barriers. One of them, which I mentioned in my intervention earlier, related to a complaint involving motor insurance, where the insurer had cancelled an existing customer’s policy on discovering that she had a spent conviction. The woman involved complained about that because it was she who had revealed that she had a spent conviction. The ombudsman found that it was unfair and unreasonable for her to be punished for her honesty in making sure that she disclosed that information. I think that the insurer in that case was fined.
Nevertheless, that example is a very good one of how the insurance industry has not been properly managed to tackle this issue. I know that in their report the Government said that they were talking to the Association of British Insurers, for example, about trying to deal with this issue. I would like to know how those discussions are going and what we can look forward to.
Those are just three areas where there is an impact on the lives of individuals, and I think all of us have recognised that this issue is not one for a nice legal discussion but something that affects the lives of individuals in a big way. I am glad that this report has done its job in tackling the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
As a fellow member of the Justice Committee, I congratulate the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), on securing this incredibly important debate. I will speak briefly about the employment prospects of those with youth criminal records.
Over 11 million people in the UK have a criminal record. As we have heard, many of their convictions are disclosed through the Disclosure and Barring Service checks when people seek certain types of employment. In 2014-15—the year that the statistics on which the Committee’s report are based were drawn from—around a quarter of all the standard and enhanced DBS checks that flagged up a previous conviction related to people who were under 18 when they had committed an offence.
As my Committee colleagues and I have discussed in recent debates about short sentencing and rehabilitation, a progressive and modem justice system must ensure that those who have committed crimes previously are not unnecessarily punished time and time again, particularly as a result of the disproportionate impact that a conviction can have on their ability to secure employment.
As noted by the charity Unlock, a criminal record acquired by a young person can continue to impact them for the rest of their life. That is not an exaggeration. In the past five years, over 1 million criminal records that related to offences from more than 30 years ago were disclosed through DBS checks. Although a criminal conviction does not necessarily act as a bar to employment, that is still potentially 1 million people unable to pursue the career path of their choice. Of course, those individuals who have committed serious offences need to face restrictions on the jobs that they are able to undertake, but we should consider the implications of the current system for the vast majority of individuals with historical minor offences on their record.
The case studies used in the Committee’s report underline that. There was the teacher who had committed two offences 38 years earlier: the first was petty theft, which was described as a silly prank and for which they received a conditional discharge; the second was actual bodily harm after they had got into a scrape, pushed someone to the ground, and for which they had been fined £10. That individual explained that
“since then I’ve become a teacher. I was a Deputy Head for some 20 years, but now I’ve started supply teaching, I have to explain these as if I am now a criminal.”
Moreover, the statistics that we have only reflect those people with criminal records who have applied for DBS-compliant jobs. There could be countless other people who have been put off from applying for jobs because of embarrassment or a reluctance to reveal previous convictions.
I fully endorse the Justice Committee’s recommendation in the report that suggests that Ban the Box should be extended to all public sector vacancies, and that the Government should consider making it mandatory for all employers. Previously advocated by the Work and Pensions Committee in 2015, the Ban the Box campaign seeks to remove the criminal record tick box from job application forms, and instead candidates would only be asked about criminal convictions later. That might seem like a small move and, as others have said, it is not perfect, but it is a move that would open up job application opportunities to those who might not otherwise consider making such an application.
Meaningful rehabilitation must be precisely that. It must be holistic, both inside and outside prison environments, and enable people who have offended in their youth to be fully able to pursue careers, rather than leaving them blighted by criminal convictions from decades earlier. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report acknowledges that, on their release from custody, people are six to nine percentage points less likely to reoffend if they enter employment, and I welcome the steps taken in recent years to roll out Ban the Box across civil service vacancies.
On Tuesday, the Committee took evidence from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who I see is no longer in his place, following his review of the treatment of and outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system, and he made a very powerful argument here today. The Ministry of Justice’s employment and education plan from 2018 notes that criminal record checks may cause additional stigma for those in the BAME community, and we must do more to address that.
As my fellow Committee members have already referred to, it is often some of the most vulnerable people who have been affected by the rules around the disclosure of criminal convictions. Take the case of Sammy Woodhouse, a woman who was the victim of childhood sexual exploitation but was given a criminal record, and who has painfully had to relive her trauma following the disclosure of her convictions. Sammy has been a tireless campaigner and has undertaken a huge array of admirable work since waiving her anonymity, but the fact remains that no matter how much people such as Sammy want to use their experiences to help others in vulnerable situations, the barriers to employment in those areas still exist for them, because they have that criminal record against their name. But it is precisely people like Sammy whose experiences, no matter how horrifying, could potentially help others in similar situations. By treating people like Sammy as victims rather than criminals, we would give them the opportunities that they rightly deserve.
I agree with the Select Committee report’s conclusion that the principles of youth rehabilitation are undermined by the system for disclosure of youth criminal records. We are capable of making significant progress on that issue: the Ban the Box initiative should be rolled out fully across the public and private sectors, combined with an appropriate DBS system that ensures records are only disclosed when the conviction is relevant to the job being applied for and proportionate to the offence. We all need to be able to have faith in a holistic, empathetic, rehabilitative justice system that gives young offenders a chance to move on from past mistakes.
I again thank the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, for his work on this issue. I look forward to working with him and other Committee colleagues to further our efforts in this important area.
I will start by apologising profusely for not having been present at the beginning of the debate, and I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), whose speech I missed a great proportion of, and to the Minister. My day job is slightly fraught at the moment, and I was engaged in the Chamber when the debate started.
Were this debate about anything else, I would not have come, but I feel more passionately about this subject than about practically anything else in the criminal justice sphere, and I have campaigned on it for many years. It goes to the heart of what our criminal justice system is for: yes, it is about punishment, rehabilitation, and keeping the public safe. But is it really about ruining the whole lives of young people who come before it because they are silly, unwise and have not yet grown up, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said? Does ruining their lives serve any real, practical purpose for the rest of society? Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that it does not, and that we have the system out of kilter with the rest of the criminal justice system and with all notion of proportionality, so I really wanted to speak in this debate. I am going to go into the way the filtering system works—in some detail, I am afraid.
Of course, the criminal justice system needs to keep a record of what has happened and what crimes have been committed, but as far as I am concerned, unless there is a public safety element, nobody else needs to know. Criminal records are currently disclosed either by an individual—in person or on a declaration form—or via a check. The Disclosure and Barring Service issues official criminal record checks in England and Wales, and there are three levels of check: basic, standard and enhanced. There is a so-called filtering system that allows some spent criminal records to be filtered out, so that they will not be revealed in standard and enhanced checks. That system was supposed to allow the disclosure regime to operate in a more proportionate manner. However, it incorporates some significant exceptions, which means many offences are non-filterable.
Filtering operates in a mechanical fashion with no discretion, and there is no right of appeal. A single conviction can be filtered provided that it does not result in a custodial sentence, that it is not for a listed offence—that is, a serious offence—and that more than 11 years have elapsed since the conviction, or five and a half years if the person was under 18 when convicted. Single or multiple cautions for lesser offences can be filtered once six years have elapsed, or two years if the person was under 18—I hope you are still with me, Mr Walker; it is clear as mud, isn’t it? Convictions and cautions for listed offences and multiple convictions for lesser offences cannot be filtered, no matter how long ago they happened and regardless of the circumstances of the offence. Of course, many of the real injustices that Members have highlighted fall into those categories. In 2014-15, there were nearly 60,000 enhanced DBS checks in which cautions were disclosed, of which 8,500 related to under-18s.
Why does this matter? We have heard from many Members, including the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), that employers are very risk-averse. They often assume that if there is a flag, they simply cannot hire, and we know that employers do not interview people who have ticked the box. As Lord Kerr has said,
“it is wholly unrealistic not to recognise that many employers, faced with a choice of candidates of roughly similar potential, would automatically rule out the one with a criminal record.”
A criminal record acquired as a youth is, in effect, a life sentence. Although a person can change and learn from their mistakes, their criminal record cannot. In the past five years, more than 1 million criminal records that relate to offences from more than 30 years ago, when the person involved was between 10 and 35, were disclosed through enhanced or standard DBS checks.
We have also heard from the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge that people do not apply for jobs, because they are embarrassed by their criminal records. We have no method of working out what effect that has had on people’s lives—we cannot prove a negative—but it is clear that, in many ways, it is affecting people’s employment possibilities. The DBS system anchors people to their past and serves as a second and continuing sentence. The system affects people with a criminal record more profoundly, and for longer, than elsewhere in Europe—or the world, as we have heard.
Our predecessor Committee held a private seminar with eight individuals who had been personally affected by the disclosure of criminal records. All had found that their employment prospects were adversely affected by their childhood criminal records, and they told us heartbreaking stories of repeated rejection before they succeeded in getting a job, frequently one that was well below their level of ability. It is not only employment that is affected by criminal record checks: most social housing providers ask about criminal convictions, and since 2011 have had the right to apply blanket bans. Croydon Council states that if a person has
“been involved in relevant criminal behaviour”
“will be disqualified from going on the housing register…Relevant criminal behaviour includes conviction of an arrestable offence in, but not restricted to, the locality of the dwelling.”
In addition to a criminal conviction, failure to prevent others committing crime can be used as a reason to refuse housing. Bromford has said that
“where the unacceptable behaviour is committed by a member of the household other than the applicant or any person living with them”
“will rely on the failure of the applicant or person living with them to prevent or deter the unacceptable behaviour as a reason to treat this as unacceptable behaviour.”
University and college admissions are severely impacted. Although I am pleased to say that the criminal conviction box has now been removed from UCAS applications, many universities continue to ask all applicants for any criminal records, regardless of the course they are applying for. We have heard extensive evidence about how criminal records can affect insurance for cars, housing and travel, which can restrict self-employment opportunities. People with unspent convictions also pay disproportionately more for the insurance that they are able to obtain, and we have heard compelling evidence that it is often difficult for them to rent a house, as well. These young people are leaving the criminal justice system, and money and rehabilitation hours will have been spent on them. The last thing we want to do is cut off their opportunities to retrain, get a job, a house or a car, go on holiday or travel for work. We are ruining every aspect of their life, so it is important that we look at this issue holistically.
I was pleased that the right hon. Member for Tottenham was able to speak about his report—which I was intending to quote from extensively, but given that he has done so, I will skip that section of my speech. However, I will say that I was having an informal chat with a group of staffers recently, who were in their early 20s. As we would expect, they were well-spoken, well-educated young people who had had many opportunities in life and done well for themselves. I was talking about this subject, which I talk about quite often, and I asked them, “When you were a teenager, did you ever get into trouble with the police? Did you ever do something on the edge of what you should have been doing?” Every single one of the male staffers to whom I spoke recounted an episode that might have landed him in trouble with the police at the time he was involved in this slightly risk-taking and unwise behaviour. Had they been boys who were of a BAME background or were just less advantaged—less able to talk for themselves and less able to get their mum down to the police station to argue on their behalf—they all might have ended up in the criminal justice system, rather than just outside it.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue in the manner that she has. It is way more effective than I would be if I raised the same point. Does she know that there is a general statistic that child psychologists have found, which is that 70% of young people have committed a crime at some point? The vast majority were never arrested or caught. It is part of that journey to adulthood. Is she aware of this issue, which I have raised in the context of marijuana? Young people are sitting in a campus university as we speak, probably smoking a joint, and if you called the police, people would think you had gone mad. The same young people walking down Brixton High Road or in Salford will get arrested or a criminal record. That is the hon. Lady’s point.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. It is right that young people should be cut some slack generally, but it is not right that some people are cut greater slack than others. That is what I found very disturbing about his report. I was particularly disturbed by his section on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, where the numbers of people in the community and the numbers in the criminal justice system are truly astonishing. I was also disturbed by the effects on black women in the criminal justice system. I encourage anyone interested in this area to read his report properly, because there are some burning injustices in how the system operates. Like him, I have two teenagers at home at the moment, and how they behave and the risks they take are always a worry. We really do not want silly behaviour to ruin the rest of their lives. I cannot commend his marvellous report highly enough.
I am concerned that over the years, those of us who have campaigned in this sphere have not had big enough asks. I remember getting very cross, when I was first elected to this place, when campaign groups said, “Let’s ask for convictions to not be in boxes or asked about after two years.” I thought, “God, that is two years of a young person’s life when they should be working, going to university, getting car insurance and all the rest of it.” Those are not years or time that they should have to wait. The period when a young person comes out of the criminal justice system is the most important time that we have as a society to set them right and help them into a useful and fulfilling life. We cannot slam them by making box-ticking get in the way of everything they do.
In the report, we made recommendations. One was on consistency with the aims of the youth justice system, and it is important that we view this as part of a holistic whole. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge talked passionately about the impact on employment. Clearly the Ban the Box campaign should be extended to all public sector vacancies. The Government should consider making it mandatory for all employers. Why do we have boxes? What are they for?
We made a recommendation on the impact on education, housing, insurance and travel, stating:
“We recommend that educational providers do not automatically use information about spent criminal records to deny access to courses…We urge providers to do everything they can to support students with childhood criminal records”.
Local government guidance for housing authorities should be amended as a matter of urgency. Guidance from the Association of British Insurers could easily be strengthened to leave insurers in absolutely no doubt that they must not expressly or implicitly request customers to disclose spent offences. With travel, we recommend that where there really are safety concerns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should raise them with relevant Governments. If there are safety issues, that is different, but that is not the case in the vast majority of cases. The 2014 revisions on rehabilitation periods do not go nearly far enough. For some detention training orders and youth rehabilitation orders, the rehabilitation periods have increased to a completely disproportionate level.
The Committee concluded that the operation of the filtering system is wholly inappropriate for the records and should be radically revised. The Law Commission’s detailed and authoritative report on non-filterable offences is excellent and we endorse its conclusions. We discussed the potential advantage of allowing an application to have a record sealed, and I suspect the Chair of the Committee mentioned it at the beginning. I am sure the Minister will talk to us later about his plans for revising the filtration system. We hope that the recommendations of the right hon. Member for Tottenham in the Lammy review will be taken into account in the production of a new and more appropriate system.
Our final recommendations were about the disclosure of police intelligence and the discriminatory impact of the disclosure regime. I endorse those recommendations absolutely. I have trespassed a long time on this debate, and I thank you for your indulgence, Mr Walker, given I arrived late. This report is one of the best pieces of work that has been done by the Justice Committee. I very much hope that the recommendations are taken into account. Next week, I am going with a group of concerned colleagues who span the whole political spectrum to see the Home Secretary about this issue. I very much hope that the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are able to work together at the pace of the faster, not the slower, of those two great Departments and that we will sort this out once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I begin by thanking the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—he is my hon. Friend in this circumstance—not only for his chairing, but for his contribution today. We work as a very strong team on the Justice Committee, and it is good to focus on key issues. I am sure the Minister will respond to them in a positive way in due course. I also thank those who contributed with oral or written evidence or who were involved in the informal seminar, as has been mentioned, where we met people who had committed offences that had impacted on their lives for a considerable period in terms of employment, housing and other services.
I want to focus on one simple issue: employment, which is central because work is one of the key planks for preventing reoffending. There are key issues to do with housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and maturity, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said, but ultimately the ability to get and keep work, to have self-worth in doing that work, and to progress through work, is critical.
We focus in the report on training, employment and through-the-gate services, including prison and youth offender institution training and community rehabilitation companies in adult prisons and elsewhere. Those are critical in helping people to get into work, but whatever the system does with that training, someone ultimately has to get a job with a public sector body or an employer. When an individual goes before a public sector body or employer, it might see that they have a criminal conviction that may be 10, 15 or 20 years old, and an initial value judgment may be made on that basis. That will stop someone accessing employment. Whether it is earlier or later in their life, that may lead to reoffending or stop them from contributing in a way that is important to society as a whole.
The key question that I will focus on is one that a number of Members have touched on: banning the box. The Disclosure and Barring Service, which we have discussed, is important in relation to a series of jobs, but it does not relate to all jobs. Ban the Box is a simple idea that could, if adopted through Government and the private sector, help to ensure that we give people an opportunity to show what they are worth prior to judging them for what they may have done 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
The simple idea, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) mentioned, is that disclosure happens after the job interview and job offer. The right to refuse is still there, but the judgments are made on the merits of the application and the individual in front of the employer—not on a conviction that may have happened some years ago. In his review, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham emphasised the difficulties that BME individuals face, because those who have convictions will also encounter other prejudices. It is important that we tackle those head on and up front.
Ban the Box is an initiative of Business in the Community, which is a branch of the Prince’s Trust. It had the support of the then Prime Minister David Cameron in February 2016, and was taken forward by the current Prime Minister. It has had significant success with, according to my latest figures, 120 employers signing up and some 828,000 roles being taken forward. Many private sector companies, such as Adnams Brewery, Barclays Bank, Boots, Cambridge University Press and Fujitsu, as well as Bristol City Council and Nacro, have taken people on, and operate the Ban the Box scheme to ensure that they do not discriminate at the point of application and interview of individuals.
We made key recommendations in conclusions 1 and 2 of the report. As my hon. Friends mentioned earlier, we agreed
“with the recommendation of the 2015 Parliament Work and Pensions Committee that Ban the Box, which applies to all criminal records, should be extended to all public sector vacancies, and that the Government consider making it a mandatory requirement for all employers.”
That is important, because we identified in conclusion 1 that
“the laudable principles of the youth justice system, to prevent offending by children and young people and to have regard to their welfare, are undermined by the system for disclosure of youth criminal records”
and by discriminatory practices that stop people getting employment, and which banning the box will address.
Those are the key recommendations. I have four or five fairly straightforward questions, which will give us an indication of the Minister’s thinking, and of whether the Government’s response and rhetoric match the aspirations that they have set themselves—it is important that they do. The first is simply this: how many employers do the Government currently believe to be operating a Ban the Box principle for their employment practices? Does the Minister keep a record of, or have access to, the number of employers who have that scheme in place? What is he doing to ensure that we expand and progress the scheme? What initiatives has he taken, or does he have planned, with major trade organisations, the CBI, perhaps the Trades Union Congress, businesses, the British Retail Consortium and a range of agencies to promote the idea of banning the box?
The Government’s response to the Committee helpfully said:
“The Ministry of Justice…will continue to explore options for promoting Ban the Box across both the public and private sectors, primarily by ensuring we lead by example.”
When I held a ministerial job, I may well have signed off such words, but I am interested in what they mean in practice. What initiatives are planned? What effort has gone in? Is it something that the Government have said in response to the Committee, and perhaps even—dare I say it?—to get through a debate such as today’s, but will file away tomorrow and not worry about? What is the plan for the future on those issues?
Great play was made in the response that in
“early 2018, we will publish an employment and education plan”
to promote Ban the Box. Early 2018 is a year ago. What has happened in the past 12 months? What progress has been made in Government? Does the Minister know? Could he tell me—not today, but perhaps in writing afterwards—how many of the Departments before us in this great House of Commons operate Ban the Box principles? Do any not operate those principles?
Government is not just the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments; it is also health trusts, health boards, arts councils and a plethora of quangos. Has that been pushed by the Minister? Has he brought together the chairs of quangos to ask what they are doing about Ban the Box, and whether they have extended it to their organisations?
What about local government? That is a big issue and part of the public sector. The Government have said that they will look to encourage the public sector to ensure that Ban the Box is adopted. What has the Minister done to encourage local councils to undertake that policy? The issue of procurement was also mentioned. The Government remain the biggest spender in the private sector across the country, commissioning builders, construction firms and purchasers. Have they checked with their suppliers about banning the box?
The simplest thing of all may be just be to make it mandatory. Then the Minister would not have to worry about extending it, and trying to push it forward and promote it—he would simply have to find a mechanism to check those who do not do it. If discriminatory practice emerges, the possibility of its being an offence could be explored, or at least the possibility of naming and shaming. As we recommended in our report, that might be the simplest way to make it a mandatory requirement for employers. I am interested, in a helpful way, in the progress the Minister has made, and what other progress there will be. Does he accept that it should be a mandatory requirement for employers as a whole?
I was asked by the Welsh Government last summer to undertake a review of prison, education and employment issues centrally. I undertook that review during the latter part of last year. The review was submitted to the Welsh Government in October of last year, and they helpfully published it last Thursday. One of the recommendations in my review of the Welsh Government’s responsibilities was that they should support the Ban the Box campaign in their own operation, procurement proposals and suppliers. I hope they will do that in Wales as a whole in response to my recommendations.
That review was commissioned by Baroness Morgan of Ely, an Assembly Member and Minister in the Welsh Government. It is now being taken forward by Kirsty Williams, who is also a member of the Welsh Government. I am very hopeful that my recommendations on Ban the Box will be adopted by the devolved Administration. However, the Minister has responsibility within the prison system and the youth justice system in England and Wales. Has he discussed that with his colleagues in Scotland, or with officials in Northern Ireland pending the resumption of the Assembly? Can we get a co-ordinated response across the United Kingdom on this issue?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, the Chair of the Justice Committee and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) have all pointed out, this is about people’s lives. We have an opportunity to make people’s lives better by judging them not on the offences that they have committed, but on the people they are and the skills they bring when they apply for the job.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Welcome to the Chair, Sir David. You may have a shorter stint than you imagined, but I am sure it will be a productive and helpful one.
The key thing is the important Ban the Box recommendation, which is based on evidence and has cross-party support. I hope the Minister will respond to my questions by giving an indication of how the Government will take matters forward in a positive way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
Let me begin by emphasising two guiding principles for the United Kingdom’s judiciary. The first is:
“It shall be the principal aim of the youth justice system to prevent offending by children and young persons.”
The second is:
“Every court in dealing with a child…shall have regard to the welfare of the child.”
I do not believe that a single hon. Member present would disagree with those principles.
The Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report acknowledges the over-representation of BAME and looked-after children. Since my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who has superior knowledge, has already spoken about the incredibly important issue of the over-representation of BAME children in the youth justice system, I will focus on the issues that the Committee raised about discrimination against looked-after children in the judicial system. The sum of the Government’s response to the discrimination against those children is acknowledgment but nothing else. As for children with mental health issues or issues such as autism, they appear, sadly, to have been forgotten in the Government’s response, as they have been in the Government’s justice policy. I do not believe that that is acceptable.
Looked-after children in care are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They have been removed from their homes because life there is no longer beneficial or safe for them, and many have been abused physically or mentally—often both. It is difficult for adults to come to terms with abuse, but for children it can often be impossible to understand what has happened to them and how they feel. It is often those who are closest and most trusted by these children who commit these abuses. These young people deserve care and understanding, but unfortunately the current system of disclosure of youth criminal records does not deliver that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important point. I declare an interest as the father of a formerly looked-after child. Does my hon. Friend agree that the phrase “looked-after” is one of the biggest oxymorons in our language? Of all the cohorts of young people we have discussed this afternoon, none makes as great a case for changing the criminal records regime as those children, who have been let down the most often—not just by their original parents, but by the state.
I agree absolutely. I feel very passionate about this. “Looked-after children” are the most abused and ignored in our society, and they continue to suffer throughout life.
The Criminal Justice Alliance told our Committee that children in care are far more often criminalised than those in family homes. In family homes, minor infringements and indiscretions are dealt with in the home, but children in care do not have such a readily available support system. The records system does not provide context for the young person’s actions, nor does it distinguish between severity of crimes. Just for Kids Law cited the case of a nine-year-old who had been physically abused and transferred to a care home, where he would frequently react badly and assault members of staff because of the high levels of abuse that he had suffered as a child. With help, he managed to do well at the home and when he was moved into foster care, but the charges of common assault against staff that he received during that traumatic time will follow him for years—a constant reminder of the abuse that he suffered and an additional barrier to flourishing as an adult, along with the many other barriers that looked-after children face. He is likely to face difficulties in work, education and social housing applications because of his record.
The impact that a caution can have in later life is often not explained to children. Convictions are often for offences that sound relatively serious, even when the behaviour is at a relatively low level. Just for Kids Law told us that children often focus on the fact that they are receiving a caution rather than on the category of offence. In some cases, for example, children have accepted cautions for non-filterable offences of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, whereas if their case had gone to court, it would have received greater scrutiny and they would have been far more likely to face a charge of common assault. Such cautions will limit people’s access to the job market, because a simple yes/no tick-box is often all the opportunity they will have to state their case in an application, and DBS checks will not provide the full context of their conviction. Barred from employment, many will find their options limited and may be pushed into reoffending in adulthood.
The issue extends to children with mental health issues or issues such as autism or PTSD, who can struggle to understand what is being said to them or the ramifications of what they are agreeing to. Children with dyslexia may struggle even to read the documents placed in front of them. The director of CRB Problems gave us the example of a person who suffered from autism and entered the judicial system at a time when we did not provide the help or care that we do today and when support was hardly available at all. He received two convictions that cannot be filtered under current rules—a failure of our past system and a failure in how the disclosure of youth criminal records works today.
That example highlights a key problem with the disclosure of youth criminal records: it holds people prisoner to the understanding that we had in the past. People who might be treated with more compassion and understanding as a child today are held to a different standard as adults. I am not talking just about people charged five to 10 years ago, but about people who were charged as far back as the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s. In those days, our understanding of the issues that children with mental health issues face was miles behind what it is today, as we know from the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s evidence on the policing of children and young people.
For all those reasons, it is important for the Government not just to acknowledge the findings and recommendations in the Justice Committee’s report on the disclosure of youth criminal records, but to act on them. I am sure that Ministers will stand up and argue that they have taken action, but I will pre-emptively respond by quoting from the written evidence submitted by the Greater Manchester Youth Justice University Partnership. Statement 3, on “The effects of reforms made in 2013 and 2014”, reads:
“Available evidence suggests that recent reforms have not had a significant impact.”
To put it plainly, we need to be doing far more.
I conclude by going back to the two guiding principles in our judicial system that I set out at the beginning of my speech: that the principal aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by children and young people, and that every court that deals with a child must have regard to the child’s welfare. Along with our report and with the many people and organisations that provided evidence, I argue that we are not meeting those two principles in how our youth disclosure system works, particularly for children with mental health issues and for children who are or have been looked after. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am not saying that to accuse the Government or score political points, but to implore the Government to work with us and other key organisations to deliver the reforms that are needed now, not in a few years’ time—reforms that would bring dramatic and meaningful change for some of the most vulnerable people in society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the Justice Committee, its Chair and the hon. and right hon. Members who serve on it for the excellent report they have published. I also thank the Committee and House staff who do the painstaking work of writing the report and the recommendations. I was a member of the Committee from 2010 to 2015. I can honestly and sincerely say that today’s debate has been one of the best I have attended in the nine years that I have been in Parliament. Every Member of Parliament who has spoken today has spoken with real passion, conviction and sincerity and with a real desire to change a very important aspect of people’s lives. It is a pleasure to be able to say that we were in the debate today.
Before I go into the details of my speech, I want to acknowledge all the Members who have contributed. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) eloquently went through the whole report and explained in detail for us, and those watching, what the report said. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for his review, which I will refer to later in my speech, and for the work that he has done. The report emphasises the high proportion of BAME children in the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the impact of housing. Let’s face it: to have a decent life you need a decent home to live in. That is such an important factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) talked about the importance of employment and jobs, without which it is difficult to survive in life. I am so pleased that the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) was able to hotfoot it from the Chamber. Clearly, with the work that she does, she is in the thick of it, as they say. Her contribution was absolutely brilliant. She went through the whole system and what needs to change. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, she eloquently put the case for race and class and the effect that it has on whether people end up in the criminal justice system. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) alluded to the issue of class and he also made a succinct point. I understand that everybody has commitments and I want to acknowledge their contributions.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), a former Justice Minister, talked about education and employment, which are crucial. He touched on whether a conviction should be disclosed when someone applies for a job or whether it should be left to the end of the process, after someone has been considered on merit. That is an important point. Last but not least, my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) rightly talked about children in care. A lot of the children also have mental health issues and autism. We know that the child and adolescent mental health services in our local authorities have long waiting lists for children to be assessed. As she was speaking, I was reminded of a case that I had when I was a prosecutor many moons ago.
A young man of 14 or 15 was in a care home. He attended court to give evidence against his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had been charged with indecent assault on his younger sister. He turned up at the court and, on seeing him, his mother went over to him and punched him in the stomach twice, and he burst into tears. He went back to the care home and set light to a curtain. He quickly realised what he had done and tried to put it out, but the fire brigade was called. It goes to exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston talked about. Because the young man was in a care home, the police and prosecuting authorities got involved. I wanted to recommend no further action on the grounds of public interest. Sadly, my boss overruled me and said that we must proceed, so we came to a compromise and she at least agreed to a caution. It illustrates the point that if that incident had happened at home, the outcome would have been different; sometimes when children do things in anger at home, nothing happens.
For me, listening to all the speeches today has been important, and I hope the Minister and the civil servants are paying attention. I will now return to my scripted speech.
At the heart of any proper youth justice system is an attempt to rehabilitate an offending young person while protecting their fellow members of society. Although those two aims do not need to be opposed, a knotty issue they throw up is deciding what information those with convictions and cautions must disclose later in life. In many cases some disclosure is essential to ensure that offenders are not exposed to vulnerable people in dangerous circumstances. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that at the moment our balancing act between personal rehabilitation and societal protection is worryingly skewed in favour of the latter. In fact, our wrong-headed, punitive approach means that we might be shooting ourselves in the foot, as forcing people to disclose largely irrelevant information years after a crime often deepens pre-existing social divides, as we have heard.
As was noted in both the 2017 Justice Committee report and the Government’s response last year, forcing people to disclose their criminal record is a power that needs to be carefully applied. Past convictions can have an impact on a person’s capacity to find housing or to take up a place at an educational institution, and can have an impact when finding work. Sadly, by forcing people to reveal past convictions years after they have served their time, we throw up barriers and prevent them from becoming fully integrated members of society. For some, it leads to long periods on benefits, at significant cost to the state. Even worse, many return to the kinds of criminal activity that we should have provided every opportunity for them to escape, and end up in prison, at even greater cost to the national purse. Locking individuals into negative patterns is particularly foolish and cruel when they committed crimes as young people.
We are well out of line with other countries internationally. A 2016 report by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice compared the treatment of childhood criminal records across Europe and America and found that the system in England and Wales was distinctly more punitive. A criminal record acquired by a child in England affects them longer and in more restrictive ways than in any of the other jurisdictions studied. Not only do we criminalise an unusually high proportion of children, but the processes by which those criminal records can be hidden from employers are arcane and inflexible.
The 2017 Justice Committee review provided persuasive justification for wide-scale reform, listing 21 conclusions and recommendations. Although the Government’s response addressed each of the recommendations, I am afraid that in too many areas they chose to kick the can down the road. One justification for that was that they chose to take their case to the Supreme Court to defend our system of disclosures, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, the Government or the MOJ should have followed the Court of Appeal and dealt with the issue and not pursued it to the highest courts. It comes as no surprise to those of us who agreed with the findings of the original Select Committee report that a Supreme Court judgment this year found that our current disclosure scheme is contrary to article 8 of the European convention on human rights on two key fronts: the rule that requires the automatic disclosure of all convictions where a person has more than one conviction, and the requirement that some childhood cautions be disclosed indefinitely. Importantly, we have a mechanism by which previous offences can be taken off DBS checks—a process termed “filtering”. However, that process also has major flaws. The current filtering will remove a spent childhood conviction from a DBS standard or enhanced certificate only when five and a half years has elapsed since the date of the conviction. It must also be the individual’s only offence and it must not appear on the list of exempt offences that will never be removed from a certificate.
I—and clearly, going by what they have said today, other right hon. and hon. Members—urge reform on all three counts. Although five and a half years is significantly less than would be required for an adult—there is currently an 11-year wait before filtering can take place—it is still an incredibly long and pretty much arbitrary period. It means that it is difficult for 19-year-olds to get jobs because of offences—often minor—committed at the age of 14. That makes no sense, especially when they have not committed other offences. During those years, most of us are growing, changing and maturing, and the law should be flexible and forgiving enough to recognise that.
The fact that convictions remain unfiltered if there has been more than one conviction or when the conviction is on the exempt offences list also holds back young people at a crucial time in their lives. The offences include those involving a degree of violence, drugs, and some sexual offences. It is a broad range of offence categories, and putting them on an unfilterable list prevents individual discretion and creates a single rule totally at odds with the need to achieve personalised restorative justice for young people. We need a child-specific system that recognises that the offences in the list are diverse and complex.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that her point about the need for a different approach for younger people is strongly reinforced by the conclusions in the February 2017 Law Commission report, which states precisely that the system bears disproportionately harshly on young offenders, and argues that some offences that might justifiably be non-filterable for adult offenders should be filterable for young offenders? The hon. Lady said that a different approach is needed, and the commission also said so.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and with the Law Commission’s recommendation. I hope that the Minister and Ministry of Justice civil servants will also be listening, and will be reminded of what the Law Commission said. I hope they will take those things on board and that we will not find that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said happened when he was a Minister, civil service-speak means we do not quite know what will happen.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has spoken about the Lammy review, which he carried out. I will touch on it, because it is important. I am worried that its findings, which are relevant to the issue that we are discussing, are being ignored, as many other recommendations have been ignored. When we look at how unequal outcomes are for BAME children and for those in care when they pass through the criminal justice system at a young age, it is clear that there is something particularly wrong about tying them for the rest of their lives to crimes that they committed as children—worsening pre-existing inequalities. I hope that the Minister will be able to throw some light on that, and suggest what actions the Department is taking on issues set out in the Lammy review.
Another issue emphasised by the Select Committee was the need to recognise that young people mature at different rates up to their mid-20s—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who is not in her place at the moment, concurred and reinforced the point. While I welcome the Government’s acceptance of that basic fact, could the Minister clarify what concrete steps are being taken to enshrine that recognition in law? Further, now that we have received confirmation that the Government’s disclosure rules are in breach of international law, can we have some clarity on the timescales on which the Government hope to bring their regulations up to date? Scrapping the current exempt list and the two-offence rule would be great first steps and I should like to know whether the Minister would recognise that the Government need to make up their mind, make up for their inaction and move quickly. Finally, do the Government plan to take steps to introduce a review mechanism by which individuals can apply to have their convictions filtered? That would allow for a genuinely case-by-case approach to justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as ever, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chairman of the Justice Committee, for securing a debate on an important report. I pay tribute to all the Members who have spoken today and, indeed, all members of his Committee for their work. It is a pleasure as always to serve opposite the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). I know and welcome her commitment to this area of work, and to working collaboratively and in a bipartisan way when we have a common goal to achieve.
The Chairman of the Select Committee and many others present today have worked hard to champion the potential of children who offend, and their capability to move on from their previous behaviour to live rich and fulfilled lives—and, indeed, to make our shared commitment to rehabilitation a reality. My hon. Friend is right to say that although the issue is technical and legal, it is about more than that. It affects real lives and, as hon. Members have said, continues to affect them for years after the offence is committed. We are grateful for the Committee’s recommendations. My hon. Friend set out with his typical eloquence and polite forcefulness how the system operates and what he feels does not work well. As hon. Members have said, at the heart of the debate there is a question of balance—striking the appropriate balance, as the shadow Minister said, between protecting the public and giving young people the opportunity for rehabilitation and to have a second chance and a future.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice recently set out his vision for a criminal justice system and the principles that should be at its heart. I am clear that the criminal justice system must have multiple aims—to deter, to ensure that there is both punishment and rehabilitation, and to protect society from crime. That means the system must be proportionate and, in the case of disclosures, relevant to those objectives. My right hon. Friend set out the need to move away from debates about soft or hard justice, and to think instead about smart justice that achieves what we would all want for society. That means knowing that, alongside appropriate safeguarding measures for children and vulnerable people, employment for those who have previously offended can support public protection. There are, as the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) said, few better tools for reducing reoffending than a regular pay cheque. We have made it clear that we want more employers to look past someone’s offending history and see their future potential, and I believe that rehabilitating people and getting them into employment is the best outcome for us all.
When she took office in 2016, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a pledge that the Government would fight against social injustice and give people back control of their lives. She set out a vision whereby all British citizens could go as far as their talents take them. Nothing should hinder that, and it should also apply to children who commit crimes or make an error. This must be reflected in the disclosure of criminal records.
I agree with the core position laid out by the Committee: employers should not regard the disclosure of a criminal record as an automatic barrier to employment. A balanced judgment should be exercised, having regard to factors such as a person’s age at the time of the offence, how long ago it was, and the relevance to the application or post in question. The Committee’s report goes beyond this and rightly highlights the need for proportionality, clarity and fairness, as well as seeking to ensure that the systems designed to protect the public and facilitate rehabilitation keep up to date with the reality of the modern world.
The Secretary of State for Justice has already identified that one of the best ways to help those who have offended to get meaningful employment is by working more closely with employers and expounding the benefits of hiring those with criminal convictions. That is why—to address one of the key themes in hon. Members’ speeches—I am happy to see the Government leading by example by rolling out Ban the Box across the civil service in 2016 and continuing to encourage its implementation across both the public and private sectors.
Whenever I see the right hon. Member for Delyn in a debate that I am speaking in, my heart both rises and sinks. It rises because he brings great expertise and knowledge of this subject; it sinks possibly for exactly the same reason, as I know he will ask me various challenging questions. He asked a number of questions, and I will try to answer some of them—if I do not answer them all, I will happily commit to write to him next week with detailed answers.
I am glad to see I serve some purpose, if there is anything wrong with the Minister’s heart—rise and/or sink, depending on his mood. He just mentioned the roll-out across Government, and it is important that he puts on record, either now or by letter, whether any Department is not operating Ban the Box.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not aware of any Government Department not doing it. There may be some roles, perhaps in the policing or security aspects of Government, where there might be more complex considerations. I undertake to write to him with a clarification on that in due course, when I will answer a number of his other questions.
Further to that point, would the Minister also commit to letting us know whether any of the Ministry of Justice’s contractors are not operating Ban the Box? The Ministry has considerable procurement leverage in these matters. Subject to the caveats about security, we would like to know that, too.
I am happy to include that, if it is appropriate, when I write to the right hon. Member for Delyn—I will copy it to Chairman of the Justice Committee, who makes a good point. I do not know whether that data exists, but I will endeavour to get it. The right hon. Member for Delyn also asked, I think, about the direct impact on the Ministry of Justice. My understanding is that of those people with a previous conviction who applied through the approach that has been taken in the civil service since 2016, 92% subsequently secured employment, which is a positive outcome.
Beyond the guidance for employers, I am proud of the rehabilitative support we have offered in the past. As I say, I will write to the right hon. Member for Delyn with some detailed answers to his questions about the specific list of activities undertaken to ensure that responses and commitments went beyond responses and commitments and followed through into actions. One thing that he mentioned, to which I can respond directly now, is about the education and employment strategy, which was published in 2018 and was explicit, as I understand it, in referring to this. I will give him the detailed action plan that sits beneath the strategy.
I am proud of the rehabilitative support we offer to people who have offended in the past. Our education and employment strategy, published in 2018, sets out how we will transform our approach to ensure that those in the adult custodial estate develop the skills they need to secure employment on release. We are giving governors the power to commission education provision and engage with employers to take on ex-prisoners—for example, via the New Futures Network.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the debate about the age of maturity and its impact on criminal justice. There is a live debate on whether it should be 18, 25 or somewhere in the middle, reflecting different scientific papers that have been put forward. I think that even the Lord Chief Justice has commented on this ongoing debate. It is something of which I am very much aware. A degree of caution needs to be exercised, if only because the age of 18 is when we deem people mature enough to enjoy certain rights and benefits. If we were to look at whether it should be 18 or 25, would that lead to a wider debate? If we are saying that someone is not criminally mature, what other rights and benefits come with a particular age? I am not setting out a particular view on that, but it does lead to a wider debate. We should not be afraid to engage in that, but we should be conscious of the wider implications.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the Supreme Court recently handed down its judgment in the case of P and others, which considered the disclosure regime. On the most fundamental point, the Court found—for the Government—that it was proportionate and practicable to make disclosure decisions in accordance with a clearly defined and unambiguous system, through the operation of legislative rules agreed by Parliament. However, as has been set out, the Court went on to find that two key features of the filtering regime are disproportionate as framed: the multiple conviction rule and the disclosure of youth reprimands and warnings. I will not recount the detail of how they operate, because hon. Members have already done so.
My Department is working closely with the Home Office to give proper consideration to the judgment. The Justice Committee’s report touched on something that is relevant. It highlighted the fact that responsibility in this area is split between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. Indeed, in some of the issues we have touched on, which I will turn to later, other parts of Government also have a relevant interest, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government being an obvious example.
I saw the Committee’s suggestion that placing responsibility on a single Department could enhance coherence. We did not accept that recommendation for a simple reason: we come back to the balance at the heart of the system, that balance between a focus on rehabilitation—giving people a second chance—and an element of public protection. Part of that sits with the Home Office and part sits with the Ministry of Justice, which can lead to a creative and hopefully positive tension and balance. Where we must strive to avoid problems is when that balance and those counter-positions or counter-interests can lead to things taking a lot longer than they might do otherwise. In a few moments I will turn to the matter of timing, because the Chairman of the Justice Committee is a deeply patient man but does not have infinite patience.
We work closely with the Home Office to give these things proper consideration. Although that judgment has been handed down, the order behind it has not yet been sent over to us. We await that order. When it is received, it is important that we are speedy and timely in addressing it.
One thing that might be able to speed these matters along is for the issue to be discussed by the Criminal Justice Board, a mechanism that is there precisely to give an overview across the whole criminal justice system, and which involves the two principally concerned Departments and others. Will the Minister undertake to have it raised on the Board’s agenda?
I will raise that very good point with the Secretary of State, who sits on that board. Although I cannot go into the details in advance of that order, I can say, and Members can read into this what they will, that I generally find justices to be wise and sensible in their opinions. They consider what they say extremely carefully and open-mindedly. I believe, from my experience in this role so far, that when one receives a judgment from the Supreme Court, there are often opportunities to look at it in broad, rather than narrow, terms. I will endeavour to reflect on that when the order comes through.
We previously committed to considering the Committee’s recommendations for reform of the criminal records system on receipt of that judgment, and we remain committed to that, because it is appropriate for us to consider any recommendations about the disclosure regime in the light of that authoritative ruling. The Committee’s recommendations sit neatly alongside it, so it makes sense to consider them in the round.
I now turn to a number of issues that came up in the debate. I am grateful to the Committee for highlighting such a wide range of issues in its report, particularly on access to housing, travel and insurance. I recognise the acute impact that lack of access to those things can have, as well as the cumulative impact on children who have offended. I will take each of the points in turn, but before I do so, I pay tribute to the speech made by the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), who rightly highlighted the need for us to understand not just the requirements of a regime but the context for each individual. She highlighted the impact on the behaviour of young people who have been looked-after children, who have had adverse childhood experiences and who may even have been victims of child sexual abuse or other forms of abuse. That should be a consideration, and she was absolutely right to raise the issue. Those individuals have a passionate advocate in her. She made her point forcefully and well, and I will certainly reflect carefully on what she said.
The Committee’s report concluded that the criminal record system undermines the principles of the youth justice system. Although we do not share that view, the Committee’s work highlights further opportunities not yet taken that can enhance the principles and the work of the criminal justice system if we reflect on how the disclosure regime operates more broadly. Children who come into contact with the police and youth offending teams are some of the most vulnerable children in our societies, as the hon. Lady highlighted. We all agree that rehabilitation is important in improving their life chances. Society has a right to expect that we will do everything possible to ensure that all people with convictions desist from crime. Those who offended as children are no different. We have a particular responsibility to children who fall into the categories that the hon. Lady highlighted.
We know how important employment, education and other factors raised by the Committee are in enabling rehabilitation. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) highlighted that issue and touched on some powerful examples. We are committed to supporting children to turn their lives around. In 2013, the coalition Government changed the law so minor offences no longer needed to be disclosed. It takes significantly less time now for offences committed by children, as opposed to those committed by adults, to become spent, after which time they no longer need to be disclosed for most purposes. Those features of the disclosure regime all relate to the fact that children who offend are often highly vulnerable and might not be as mature as adults who do so. There has been progress, and the hon. Lady would expect me to say that, but given her comments about pre-emptive action, I will not say, “That’s progress. That’s job done. We are in the right place,” because I believe that there is clearly more to do.
The Committee raised concerns about equality and disproportionality. I am committed to reducing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the youth justice system, and I share the concerns voiced by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in his 2017 report. I reassure the shadow Minister that we take that report incredibly seriously. Since I was first appointed to this role last summer, I have met the right hon. Gentleman a number of times. We announced last November via the Cabinet Office the cross-Government “one year on” update on the progress that has been made in that area. I have regular roundtables with those with an interest in this issue to chase up progress. We have a director general in the Department who is directly responsible for bringing officials from a range of parts of the Department together to drive forward progress on reducing disproportionality and implementing the recommendations in the right hon. Gentleman’s report. That reflects the fact that I recognise the need for systemic change. A key focus is on explaining or changing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the justice system.
I am also aware of the over-representation of vulnerable groups with multiple and complex needs—particularly looked-after children, excluded children and those with mental health issues. Again, it is a fundamental priority for the youth justice system to ensure that those children receive the support and intervention they need to fulfil their potential.
A number of Members touched on the disclosure of police evidence. In our response to the Committee’s report, we noted that disclosure of police intelligence can be an important aspect of the regime. That was a key finding of the Bichard report after the Soham murders. It plays a vital part in ensuring that children and vulnerable adults are protected. The police cannot automatically disclose all intelligence. Disclosure of non-conviction information is subject to a statutory relevance test, so the chief officer has to consider whether the information is relevant and ought to be disclosed. That includes consideration of the individual’s age at the time of the offence, its seriousness and how long ago it occurred, but once again, as hon. Members have emphasised, the key is proportionality and relevance.
My Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) touched on housing. Social housing is a precious resource, so ensuring that it is allocated fairly, as he set out, is crucial. We recognise the need to understand better how the allocation system is playing out in local areas, so we know whether it is striking the right balance between fairness, support and aspiration. In the social housing Green Paper, the Government propose an evidence collection exercise to help us to understand how the allocations framework is working across the country in different areas. Following that exercise, we will consider whether changes to legislation, regulations or statutory or best practice guidance are necessary, but we believe that making changes prior to having a clear evidence base would be premature. My Department continues to work closely with MHCLG colleagues to ensure that the points that my hon. Friend and others made, which are directly relevant in this space, are considered in that broader piece of work.
I am grateful to the Minister for the constructive dialogue that we can have. In carrying out that evidence exercise, will he particularly bear in mind the evidence that we received from the Standing Committee for Youth Justice? Like me, the Minister comes from a background in London local government, and that organisation’s findings were that some 13 of the 30 London local authorities it looked at had housing policies that tended to have an unreasonable impact on the allocation of housing to former offenders. If, as he said, a pay cheque is one way of stopping offending, secure accommodation is another.
My hon. Friend alludes to our shared past in London local government, where I first met him many years ago, when I had a little more hair and it was not quite so grey. He is absolutely right: I meet with the Standing Committee on Youth Justice and consider its reports and input with great care. It is for local authorities to ensure that their allocation schemes are lawful, taking account of any relevant decisions made by the courts. No authority may breach section 4 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which requires that a person who has a spent conviction be treated as if the offence was not committed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley also touched on education. As we set out in our response to the report, most higher education institutions are autonomous, independent organisations, and as such admissions are a matter for each individual institution. They are best placed to decide which applicants are the most suited for their organisations and the courses that they offer. Similarly, further education providers, including colleges, are independent organisations that can set their own entry criteria for qualifications, in line with those published by the qualification owner.
That said, we expect providers to take account of the Committee’s recommendation as part of a transparent admissions process. On universities, I am happy to say that for the 2018-19 cycle, UCAS has dropped the automatic requirement for all applicants to declare unspent convictions, regardless of whether they are relevant to the course for which the applicant is applying. The eligibility for Disclosure and Barring Service standard or enhanced certificates applies to work placements in the same way as other paid or voluntary employment. If a course does not involve a work placement that is eligible for a check, the university can only ask about unspent convictions.
Hon. Members raised the matter of insurance, the Association of British Insurers and other matters. The ABI published a good practice guide in 2011—it was updated in 2014—that sets out high-level standards of how insurers should treat people with convictions or related offences. The guide makes it clear that insurers should not ask for spent convictions. When an insurer is unable to provide full or any cover because of a consumer’s unspent conviction history, the insurer should provide information about alternative sources of help.
The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston touched on the UN convention on the rights of the child and similar. As stated in our response, the Government consider that the disclosure regime is compatible with the convention. It treats convictions and cautions received by those under the age of 18 differently to those incurred by an adult and, although I hear that hon. Members feel that those people should be treated more differently, we believe that we are compliant with the convention. In the light of the Supreme Court judgment, any future changes to the regime will take the convention into account.
I want to touch on the passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), and her passionate campaigning work. I am very pleased that she was able to dash from the main Chamber to deliver her speech. I know that she is a passionate advocate for the Ban the Box campaign. She speaks with eloquence and with great knowledge and experience, having worked on this issue for some time. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss that campaign more broadly if she feels that that would be helpful. If the right hon. Member for Delyn and others wished to join us, I would be very happy for them to do so.
There is always a balance to be struck between giving the employers the information that they need to make informed recruitment decisions and having a criminal records system that enables rehabilitation. I look forward to our bringing forward proposals both in response to the Supreme Court judgment and to formally address the issues set out in the Committee’s report. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is a patient man, but not infinitely patient—nor is his Committee. Hon. Members quite rightly highlighted that although words are important, and this place uses an awful lot of them, they must lead to action.
I am clear that we must, and will, act to address the issues raised and the Supreme Court judgment when the order comes forward. I hope that we can all believe and support a system that believes in redemption, rehabilitation and a second chance. More than ever, that should apply to children who, at a young age, make a simple mistake that should not blight the rest of their lives. I commit to working closely with the Committee in the coming months to respond to and address its points as well as those raised by the Supreme Court judgment. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak on this subject.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David.
This has been an extremely well-informed and constructive debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members, Committee members and others, who have spoken. I am particularly grateful for, and warmly welcome the contribution of, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), whose work in this field we all pay tribute to and who recently engaged with us as a Select Committee. My colleagues from the Committee spoke powerfully and persuasively in the course of this debate.
It is an area on which there was a good deal of agreement between the two Front Benchers, and so it should be. In such important matters of not only criminal justice policy but social justice policy, we ought to seek and are well able to achieve a broad cross-party consensus in this place.
I welcome the tone of the Minister’s response, because I know that he is genuine, and also welcome his constructive engagement with the debate and the Committee. I look forward to that continuing. There is compliance not just with the letter of the convention but with its spirit and the ability to take that further, and I know that he and the Secretary of State—both genuine reformers—will seek to do that.
I thank all our Committee staff who worked on the report—some of them are in the Public Gallery today. They did an excellent piece of work. I also thank all those witnesses who gave evidence to us, including those who brought their own experience of the system—it is not always easy to talk about—to assist us directly.
There is an opportunity to consider some of these matters in the other place as well. As the Minister knows, the noble Lord Ramsbotham has a private Member’s Bill—the Criminal Records Bill—which awaits Committee in the other place. If the Bill progresses further, the Minister’s colleague, the noble Lord Keen, will probably deal with it. I hope he will look as favourably as he can at the changes. It is a broader Bill, but includes specific provisions on rehabilitation periods for childhood and young person offences, which I hope that the Ministry will look at constructively. I am sure we would all want to recognise Lord Ramsbotham’s work in this field over very many years.
The Minister has been constructive, and I look forward to engaging further with him, as do all the Committee. He is right that I have a measure of patience—you, Sir David, will know more than anyone that a lifelong West Ham supporter has learnt to be patient over many years, although even our patience in that respect is not inexhaustible. However, I take the Minister’s comments in the generous and constructive spirit in which they were made. I again thank all Members who have participated in an important and constructive debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the First Report of the Justice Committee, Disclosure of youth criminal records, HC 416, and the Government response, Cm 9559.