Thursday, 15 September 2011

Discrimination Against Ex-offenders In Employment

The BBC reported today that 73% of looters in the so-called ‘riots’ occurring in many UK cities were young people with criminal records. It wasn’t surprising that some politicians seized the opportunity of the riots to roll out their favourite pet theory on how the world can be made a better place (for some anyway). Various ‘solutions’ have been rolled out and they are all doomed to failure. Only someone who has nothing to gain by the solution would be without bias enough to find it. Otherwise there is an added ingredient (predominantly self interest) to be included that was never in the problem. This is often why no Government initiative ever works (see current stupidity on nudging as an example ).

When I worked in a jobcentre, I met a young man who defended his girlfriend from an attack made by an ex-lover. His actions were in keeping with any person looking after his family but the court deemed his action against the ex-lover as excessive and he was jailed for grievous bodily harm. He had no criminal record before and none since. Never the less he discovered what his actions cost him in trying to live afterwards in the society that wanted him to be a productive, law abiding citizen but denied him the opportunity.

One of the first things that happen to you when you get a criminal record in the UK is an almost impossible uphill struggle to get a job. Without work, an ex-offender is cast adrift without money or future prospects. Now if having served a sentence for a crime committed was supposed to be payment for breaking the law, it does not make practical or economical sense to exclude an ex-offender from making a valuable contribution to a tax-paying society, but instead forcing him into a position where he (it can be ‘she’ also but the majority of ex-offenders are male) must claim benefits from the state, experiencing perpetual rejection from the labour market.

The law justifies, and rightly so, denying people convicted of certain offences the right to gain employment in certain jobs; the obvious examples would be paedophiles banned from working with children or sex offenders working with vulnerable people. Prospective employers request information from The Criminal Record Bureau, known as a (CRB) check, to ensure this is the case. In other areas of employment, however, where a CRB is not required, it should be possible to find employment. But because of the way application forms demand in advance to know if anyone has a criminal record of any kind, they are automatically sifted out of the interview stage.

So the guy I mentioned earlier has the same chance of getting a job as a convicted paedophile. No matter how I consider this point I always arrive at the conclusion that this is fundamentally wrong. Not only wrong, it is discriminatory and denies all ex-offenders of the opportunity - not to put their past behind them but - to work towards a better and more productive future.

Employers are sifting out all applicants with criminal records ignorant of what they had a criminal record for. The applicant’s skills, qualifications, experience and aspirations to be a productive member of their society counts for nothing on the recruitment table.

Now when you consider that one in four young men in the UK aged between 16 – 24 have a criminal record, (up to 73% in one could argue feature in the 2000 plus arrests) is it any wonder that many of them participated in a looting spree for goods that they could never possibly find a job to get the money to pay for legitimately. Is this not just a case of human nature expressing itself in an unfair system?

There are politicians and experts of this and that, spending money on committees and think tanks, trying to come up with a solution to prevent riots like this from happening again. Among the solutions included are the notion of water cannons, rubber bullets, harsher sentences, eviction from council houses and a whole raft of ‘tough on crime’ ideas. These kinds of solutions can only suppress human nature into finding more cunning and subversive ways of making a living in a world that does not offer sufficient opportunities. The most common way of making money outside of the system is, of course, drug dealing and one wonders how complicit we have been as a society in ‘nudging’ ex-offenders into the only types of career opportunity available to them by denying them work opportunities that should be open to all.

The laws on equal opportunities must be reflected in our treatment of ex-offenders as much as we do race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, disability (although one still experiences lip service at times just to appear to stay within the law). Ex-offenders, by their very treatment by us, are become a group that can be classified as being treated differently. So if equal opportunities exist to prevent discrimination against certain groups, then ex-offenders must surely have the same protection.

To address equality in employment, the law must first prevent employers from asking a blanket question about criminal records before the interview. Naturally there are certain crimes that will exclude certain offenders from even applying – and it is for the employer to justify its reasons excluding those crimes from its applicants. So if an offence is not on the list for that kind of employment, it will be ok for an ex-offender to apply for that job (The Department For Work and Pensions has a ‘Standard Occupation Classification’ (SOC) list that can be used to identify what types of employment may exclude what kinds of crime).

The second area of an application for work that must change is the previous work history, where it must be explained what a candidate has done during a period of time where no work history is declared. Ex-offenders would have been in prison and many application forms ask for reasons for the gap, mainly to identify people who have served custodial sentences. This is another opportunity for discrimination. Candidates should be entitled to put down ‘unemployed’ for a period of a custodial sentence. For this reason, people in between jobs, single parents or others not in the labour market, people who have had long term sickness or disability should also be able to put down ‘unemployed’ for any period between periods of work.

Thirdly, an employer may not ask about periods of unemployment during the interview. The interview is about the advertised job, so the interview should be about that job and a candidates related experience to it.

If an employer decides, after a successful interview, to offer a candidate the post, only then can they enquire about periods of unemployment because if an employer declines an ex-offender a job for a crime that is not relevant to their business, they could then be taken to an Employment Tribunal for discrimination.

It is right that an ex-offender must declare any unspent convictions. It is wrong to exclude ex-offenders from employment, simply because they have a criminal record. With so many youngsters having criminal records it would be stupendously silly of the Government not to realise that the world has changed greatly since the laws regarding the declaration of criminal records made sense.

I sent a short letter to Ken Clarke, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Justice, a week ago with this suggestion. I have yet to receive a response.

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