Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the Committee has considered the statutory instrument to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 to add four occupations: chartered management accountants, fire and rescue authority employees, justice system intermediaries, as defined, and notaries public of England and Wales.
As your Lordships know, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 governs the disclosure of cautions and convictions for most employment purposes. Under the Act, most convictions become spent following a specified period, which supports the rehabilitation of offenders, helping them to put their past behind them.
The exceptions order lists the categories of jobs where those protections are lifted so that individuals, if asked, are required to disclose spent convictions. There are certain jobs where more complete or relevant disclosure of an individual’s criminal record may be appropriate, particularly when we are dealing with financial matters, professional persons, vulnerable persons or young persons, among others. There is clearly a balance to be struck here between the rehabilitation of the offender and the protection of the public.
The order proposes to add four occupations to the exceptions order. First, it adds members of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants—CIMA. This is related to the functions that they carry out, which are fundamentally based on trust and present a particular opportunity to cause harm to the public through abusing that trust. The order already includes most accountants but, for historical reasons, it does not yet include CIMA, whose members carry out very similar functions to those already carried out by chartered accountants. The addition has been requested by the institute itself and it already exists in Scotland, so in the Government’s view, it is entirely in line with the policy and intent behind the order in question.
The second category being added is employees of the fire and rescue service, where, in the Government’s view, there exists a clear case for change. The Independent Culture Review of London Fire Brigade contains some troubling findings, and recent reviews into fire and police culture have also revealed certain failings. That has been confirmed by a report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services. It is important that we vet people we employ in our public services. Firefighters in particular come into contact with the public in certain circumstances, so it is right that they should be included.
The addition is particularly sought by the National Fire Chiefs Council, representatives of which, I gather, are present today. It asked that this change be made. In the Government’s view, this supports the ongoing reform of the fire and rescue service from a cultural and safety point of view, bearing in mind that firefighters in particular often attend schools or vulnerable persons’ homes and incidents or accidents as first responders, exercising statutory powers and helping to safeguard others. Therefore, it is only right that the fire and rescue service should be included. We hope that this will protect and enhance the reputation of our fire and rescue service employees, who are deeply trusted: we admire their courage and dedication to duty. In the Government’s view, this will enhance the trust that they must enjoy to carry out their roles effectively.
The third category being added is justice system intermediaries, whose role is essentially to enable communications with vulnerable witnesses and parties in police inquiries and court and tribunal proceedings, particularly those who assist the Ministry of Justice in the witness intermediary scheme or are appointed as intermediary advisers. Their participation is generally to help witnesses who are, for example, under 18 or suffering from some mental or physical disorder or impairment. These intermediaries are clearly in a position to have unsupervised access to vulnerable adults. In the context of their duties, they may have unsupervised access to children under the age of 18, and the role can involve discussions with vulnerable people concerning highly personal or sensitive matters, such as domestic or sexual abuse. The inclusion of such persons in this list will add to the safeguarding of the vulnerable people concerned and place the intermediary in a position of increased responsibility for the welfare of the vulnerable people. Again, that will increase trust in the system.
The fourth category being added is notaries. This is a quite different category. A notary—or notary public, to give the technical term—is a specialised lawyer who has undertaken further legal education and examination, and is typically responsible for certifying and authorising certain documents, particularly those relating to property deeds and other financial transactions, and to foreign court proceedings, foreign qualifications and the like. For those who enjoy the byways of history, notaries are still regulated by the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although most notaries are solicitors, they do not have to be. They attest the authenticity of documents, certify documents, take affidavits and swear oaths.
The background to this, particularly in the light of the Ukraine crisis, is that the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right honourable Dominic Raab, asked the legal services regulators how the Government could support the upholding and enhancing of the economic crime regime. In response, the Faculty Office recommended adding notaries to the exempted professions under the exceptions order, so notaries are now added to barristers, solicitors and other similar professions that are already subject to these enhanced checks.
The effect of this order is that while there is a basic DBS check for many employees in the existing exceptions and those in the categories I outlined, the order now moves them up to a standard DBS check, where relevant convictions which would otherwise be spent are disclosable. That is to protect the public. However, it is important that this change is implemented proportionately, because the Government are still very much concerned with the rehabilitation of prisoners. Without taking up the Committee’s time this afternoon, I draw attention to the proportion of prison leavers who are in employment six months after release having doubled in the last two years to March 2023. The Government have taken many active steps to help released prisoners to gain employment.
All the professions that I mentioned have agreed to produce updated guidance, developed with the support of MoJ officials, to ensure that employers are fair in their recruitment decisions. Just because a firefighter in his early 30s got into bad company 10 years before does not mean that he is not a trustworthy firefighter today. It must be borne in mind when we implement this that having to disclose a conviction does not mean that you will not get the job. This must be done in a fair and balanced way. The Government are very conscious of that.
Those are the main points that I would draw to the attention of the Committee.
My Lords, the Opposition support this draft order. Supporting ex-offenders into employment is something that we must all endeavour to be better at, especially given the central role employment can play in preventing future offending. It is vital that our criminal records system does not unnecessarily trap people in the past when they are committed to reform and have stayed out of the offending cycle and rebuilt their career. However, the overriding concern when legislating in this area must always be the protection of the public.
The exemptions included in the 1975 order strike that proportionate balance because those areas of work, such as working with vulnerable individuals or potentially sensitive information, require a high degree of trust. We are satisfied that the proposed extensions to the 1975 order can be introduced while maintaining that vital proportionate balance. Given the culture that we have seen across some of our fire and rescue authorities, and the police, we must ensure that people are properly safeguarded. I am glad that representatives of the fire authorities are here today.
Justice system intermediaries have very high levels of responsibility for the vulnerable individuals they assist, including children, and they sometimes have unsupervised access to them. Notaries also frequently deal with vulnerable people and highly sensitive information, and it is right that individuals who undertake such work are subject to additional DBS scrutiny.
The relevant organisations are producing guidance to ensure that a proportionate approach is taken with regard to the disclosure of criminal records in these additional areas, to ensure that equality and individual privacy are upheld alongside public protection. What plans, if any, do the Government have to review this guidance to ensure that it is indeed proportionate, as the Minister emphasised, and drafted in line with the anticipated need of those professions, as recommended by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee?
Can the Minister share whether the draft order represents the extent of his department’s current intentions to change the criminal records system? Will he also inform us whether he has had any recent meetings with the organisation #FairChecks, or whether the Government have any plans further to reform in relation to its campaign about offences committed in childhood?
When preparing for this short debate, I reflected on my experience with the DBS system. As somebody who has worked all their life in private industry, I have never been checked in the DBS system. I have recruited many people and been recruited, I have been a company director and various other things, and I have never been checked. However, I have been checked by the DBS system as a magistrate and as a coach for my son’s sports clubs to make sure that I am a fit and proper person to carry out that coaching role. However, I have never had to jump that particular hurdle in my working life.
As the Minister said, this is a very live issue when one deals with youths, as I do as a magistrate. It is not unusual for me to have a youth in front of me who says that he aspires to being a football coach. Of course, if you are a football coach you will be coaching youths, which requires the highest level of DBS check. It is not necessarily a bar, but it is the highest level. When I sentence youths, I want to encourage them to go on to fulfil their ambition, if it is to be a football coach. While on the one hand we support these enhanced safeguards, I hope they will not be a bar on people fulfilling their ambitions. The fear is that these enhanced checks will act as a disincentive for people to go ahead and apply for certain types of roles, such as the example I gave.
I hope the Minister can expand a little further on what the Ministry of Justice is seeking to do with a wider review of the whole DBS system, and how it could be thorough on the one hand but on the other proportionate to the aspirations of people who seek to get a job as a firefighter, as in his example, or, as in my example, a youth who wants to be a football coach. The system is very cumbersome. The effect of that is that it discourages people checking and putting their names forward. I hope the Minister can expand a little further on the work the Ministry of Justice is doing to look at the whole criminal records review process.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his contribution and for the support he offers to this statutory instrument. I will respond to his two main questions. First, on the guidance, officials from the Ministry of Justice, with the help of officials from the Disclosure and Barring Service, are working closely with representatives from these professions to develop and update their guidance to ensure that it is proportionate and fair. As far as I know, that is an ongoing process and a matter for ongoing review to make sure this scheme works proportionately.
As far as other plans are concerned, as I understand it—having regard to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and a recent judgment of the Supreme Court—the intention is to remove the disclosure of certain youth cautions, warnings and reprimands from the system altogether so that there is less clutter, if I can use that shorthand, in the system. There is also something called the multiple conviction rule, which I think necessitated disclosure when there was more than a single conviction. This will, I hope, reduce the likelihood of protection of the public unduly interfering with the important objective of rehabilitation; that is the intention, at least.
We have to find a balance. We are doing our best, particularly in the youth area. I am conscious of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about those who aspire to be a football manager and so forth. We really do not want, if we can possibly avoid it, to put obstacles in their way from when they got into trouble at 15, 16 or 17 when they are now 27 and settled down. We do not want the earlier criminal record to be a blight on their lives. We have to strike the right balance.
Work on this is ongoing. My good friend in the other place, the right honourable Edward Argar, is meeting criminal justice charities on 13 June—tomorrow, I think. It may even be today; I have slightly lost track of what day it is at the moment. They will discuss further reform of the criminal records system to see whether we can simplify it and tip it a little more in favour of youth, in particular, to ensure that the rehabilitation objective is properly followed.
That is the most I am able to say this afternoon. I am sure that there are further instalments to come in this important story. Unless noble Lords have any other questions, I commend this instrument to the Committee.