We gathered where the laws are made, where the Law Lords do their thing; the place where the wallpaper costs £59,000 (see image). And I was defensive. Having a conviction more or less bars me from taking part in politics, the press would tear me apart before I even got started and, since the original 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, I’m not aware that anything particularly useful has emerged from this place to help people like me put their past behind them; at least, not without being forced into it by the EU. In fact, things have got considerably worse for people with convictions over the last ten years, so I had a big question mark in my mind about what we were all doing here: are the people who run this place really our allies? But I was pleasantly surprised.
First, Lord Ramsbottom spoke. He’s a lively and humorous man, and left me in no doubt that there are people in the upper echelons of the establishment who do care about the lot of those at the other end of the social scale. He has a clear commitment to Unlock and to the people it serves. It was good to see.
Then Charlie Ryder came on, making excellent points about the use of language and the problems with the term ex-offender. I don’t like it myself because it makes ‘offender’ sound like a job description, like ex-journalist, or ex-footballer; like having a conviction was something I wanted to achieve and was once proud of. At least ‘people with convictions’ has a double meaning and, as Charlie tells us, the writer and producer Emilia di Girolamo says: “To succeed after prison you need real conviction because the odds are stacked against you.”
As I mingled and circulated among the crowd I met people from charitable trusts who help fund Unlock, business developers from private security and prison firms who are interested in developing whole packages of aftercare and resettlement services that, currently, don’t really exist. And they have the resources and the research to prove these initiatives reduce re-offending, which is always the big selling point when going after tax-payers money. I met powerful and successful lawyers who make it their business to fight for people like me; to use every legal tool available to slice off the ball and chain that a criminal record can be. I met senior probation officers and policy makers who all share the same conviction: that it’s not what you did that matters, it’s what you do now that counts. And it was good.
The main thing I took away from that reception was a refreshed understanding that there are a lot of good, well connected and committed people working on developing far more progressive approaches to rehabilitation that have yet seen the inside of the Lords’ chamber as legislation, and that not everything that comes out of this place – or as MPs call it ‘The other place’ – is designed to make my life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of other, more difficult.