Controversy over plans to reveal job applicants’ criminal records

due to come into force next year which will allow employers to ask job
applicants for details of their criminal records could lead to increased
discrimination against offenders. Ross Wigham reports

Legislation due to come into force next year will mean employers will be
able to ask job applicants for details of their criminal records.

The provisions in the Police Act (1997), which will become law in autumn
2002, are designed to provide information to help recruit-ers make more
informed decisions about the suitability of those seeking work in positions of

But research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has raised concerns that
the new powers could lead to heightened discrimination against offenders or
even increase the risk of further criminal activity.

Although the Act is designed primarily for positions that involve regular
contact with children or vulnerable adults, all employers will be able to ask
applicants for details of any convictions which are not spent, under the law’s
basic disclosure provision.

Seventy-two per cent of the 400 employers surveyed by JRF say it is very or
quite likely that they would require applicants to provide basic disclosures of
criminal records under the act.

One in four private employers reveal they would not seek the information
unless making a firm job offer but the study concludes that many organisations
would use the disclosure system to vet applications before interview.

Del Roy Fletcher, co-author of the report, is worried about the consequences
for past offenders. "Requests for basic disclosure certificates seem set
to become a standard recruitment practice once the legislation comes into
force," he said.

"Ex-offenders already face considerable difficulties finding work, even
though a steady job can play an important part in making it less likely they
will commit further crime. Our research suggests disclosures will heighten the
level of discrimination against offenders, with serious potential consequences
for levels of re-offending."

The CIPD warns employers that they must use the new powers responsibly and
learn how to deal with this type of information sensitively.

"The research shows that employing offenders is something employers are
not comfortable with," said Dianah Worman, adviser on diversity at the

"There are certain jobs where employers need to ensure people don’t
have certain convictions – child abuse, for example. The problem is that
employers have not been used to dealing with this kind of information and these
records will show all kinds of convictions, which could throw employers."

Worman told Personnel Today that employers will have to make a judgment on
whether they can employ people and what information is most relevant when
making that choice. She added, "The availability of records will mean that
employers will have to become more efficient in dealing with the information
and the candidates sensitively."

The changes have been broadly welcomed by the CBI, which claims that unfair
discrimination is not a relevant argument.

"Taking into account a criminal record is not unfair discrimination
because it could be a relevant factor in assessing whether an individual is
suitable for the job or not. Obvious examples include the security industry,
accountancy and care homes for vulnerable groups like children and the
elderly," said a spokesman.

The CBI believes that employers are fully entitled to know about candidates’
unspent past convictions and to take them into account in hiring decisions.
"Employers have a duty of care to their staff and customers to ensure that
the candidates they take on are suitable," he said.

The CBI thinks the new system will help cut down on errors and poor quality
data caused by the practice of individuals being asked to obtain their own
records because of the current limitations on checking applicants.

The spokesman added, "Where vetting does occur, the establishment of
the Criminal Records Bureau and the availability of basic disclosure is to be

"It replaces the system of obtaining records from police stations,
which was inaccurate, slow and unreliable."

Tracy Myhill, president of the Association of Healthcare Human Resource
Management, does not think employers will use the legislation to discriminate
against job applicants with criminal convictions.

She said NHS employers are already able to check whether job applicants have
criminal records if they are applying for roles where they will be involved
with children or vulnerable adults.

"We treat every case individually and make a judgement depending on the
nature of the conviction.

"We will take advantage of the fact that there is more information
available, not to discriminate against people but to protect the clients they
would be looking after."

Myhill is confident employers will use common sense and will not abuse their
new powers.

She said, "All employers want the best person for the job and just
because someone may have done something in their past, does not mean they are
not good workers.

"Getting people back to work is important because not only does it help
rehabilitate them it will also stop them reoffending."

Employing ex-offenders: the stats

– Less than 1 per cent of the 22,000
job applications studied in the analysis revealed details of previous criminal
offences, despite Home Office figures showing that one in three men have at
least one criminal conviction for a non-motoring offence.

– Seven out of 10 employers thought it "very" or
"quite" likely they would require a basic disclosure certificate from

– One in four private employers said they would not seek the
information unless making a firm job offer.

– Two out of three employers had a formal or informal policy on
hiring people with criminal records, many of which restricted recruitment to
some extent.

Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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