In 2016, the High Court ruled in favour of two people who claimed their careers were blighted by minor criminal convictions that they had to disclose to employers. One of the claimants was charged with shoplifting a 99p book in 1999 while suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. She failed to attend court, resulting in two convictions that subsequently denied her a job as a teaching assistant in later life.
At REED, we currently have more than 8,000 people with convictions registered with us who we are helping return to work. However, we still find there are huge barriers in getting them into employment.
We must always remember the lasting effect crime has on victims and their loved ones. But for those who wish to seek rehabilitation and contribute to society, we must also think about how the crime has affected their lives and how we can support them back into work. But this is no quick fix. After so long being out of sight and often out of mind, they can often feel thrust into the spotlight with no direction. It can be difficult for them to assimilate back into a normal routine of life. Yet, it is crucial that we help them do so.
Data from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice in 2011 revealed a third of Britons claiming out-of-work benefits had a recent criminal record. The total annual cost to the taxpayer was around £8billion.
This illustrates why change is needed. But it is not just down to the government and charities to affect this change; businesses must also take responsibility. I believe recruitment has a critical role to play in ensuring those with convictions are treated fairly and are given a second chance to make a positive contribution.
Action is needed to correct the entire process of helping people with convictions return to work. This action can be broken down into five key stages:
The Application Stage
Back when he was the Secretary of State for Justice, we met with Michael Gove to advise on the Ban the Box campaign. The campaign called on UK employers to create a "fair opportunity" for people with convictions to compete for jobs, by removing the tick box from application forms and asking about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process. It is encouraging to see influential organisations such as UCAS recently adopt a similar approach on university applications, but more change is needed.
If this campaign is not universally implemented, questions around the fair recruitment of people with convictions will remain a source of debate. With the rise of technology in recruitment, how do people with convictions apply for jobs when an automated filtering function could instantly 'weed' out those with a criminal past? We must be mindful of passing on human bias to our robot helpers.
The Recruitment Stage
When David Cameron was Prime Minister, REED was invited onto the Blind Recruitment Committee headed by the PM himself. This committee was designed to promote fair recruitment including clarity over how employers could remove bias from the application process. This meant 'blinding' recruiters to identifying details on CVs and job applications, for example their name, place of birth, educational establishment and photo ID.
It's great to see signs of progress. Name-blind recruitment was one of the key recommendations of the government's 2016 Bridge Report, which outlined ways to improve equality and diversity in the UK public sector. Following the report, the NHS and Civil Service are also set to roll out name-blind recruitment by 2020. This type of recruitment allows those with convictions to have a fair shot at the application process – without any negative association hindering them.
The Interview Stage
At the interview stage it is important that candidates know their rights when it comes to disclosing past convictions. The current law states that in key public sector jobs such as teachers and NHS staff, applicants are obliged to declare all previous convictions. For all other jobs, applicants do not need to disclose spent convictions and employers are prohibited by law from turning people with spent convictions down for this reason. Employers have a responsibility to handle sensitive information, such as past convictions, with great care and they must be prepared to make a fair judgment based upon their experience of the candidate, rather than any past actions.
The Decision Stage
When deciding upon a candidate, I urge employers not to immediately judge a book by its cover and instead consider what the company is looking for and the responsibilities of the role. After this, employers can then carefully decide whether a candidate's past convictions actually affect their ability to perform the job.
Employers should be encouraged to recognise alternative work histories. There are many instances where applicants may have a 'gap' in their CV, whether it be through illness or a criminal conviction. More education is needed to help employers and recruiters look past these gaps and consider not what the candidate hasn't done, but rather what they have done both in their career and during their time out. Not all CVs neatly fit into our ideals of a 'normal' career path of education followed by a first job and then steady progression. People outside of these standards can demonstrate transferable skills in other ways, for example voluntary work positions in prison and community service.
The Post-Interview Stage
Responsibilities for employers do not simply end when a candidate with a past conviction is hired. It is important to continue supporting them as they make the transition into work and throughout their employment. By providing a mentor and clear access to external support networks, employers can ensure they give their most vulnerable employees the support they need.
Last month we celebrated Prisons Week, which aims to raise awareness for the needs of those affected by prisons, from the prisoners and their families, to the victims of the crime and their communities, as well as those working in the criminal justice system. It is an opportunity for us to reassess how we think and act towards those with past criminal convictions who want to make good of their life. If people are keen to work and wish to play their part in helping our economy thrive, they should be encouraged and allowed to do so without barriers.
James Reed is the Chairman of reed.co.uk, the UK's biggest recruitment brand and the largest family-owned recruitment company in the world. He is a regular media commentator on work and labour market issues, with recent appearances including BBC Breakfast, Channel 4's Sunday Brunch, Radio 5 Live and The Apprentice.