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Ban the box: helping ex-offenders into employment

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Rehabilitating offenders into society is a crucial part of the UK’s justice system. Without the opportunity to put spent criminal offences behind them, a convicted person may not reintegrate and could in fact reoffend.

Employment is one of the most important building blocks to ensuring offenders can make a fresh start but many people with spent criminal convictions are being prevented from accessing work because of discriminatory recruitment practices.

Under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, a spent conviction – a conviction of less than four years that can be effectively ignored after a period of time – does not have to be disclosed when applying for most jobs. However, employers sometimes deliberately, if not inadvertently, exclude people with convictions – who are either unaware that they do not need to disclose convictions or feel pressured to – from recruitment processes by including a tick box for any convictions on application forms. Crucially, employers can only refuse to hire someone on the basis of spent convictions for certain types of employment, such as working with children or vulnerable adults. It is against the law to refuse someone a job because they have a spent conviction or caution.

Nevertheless, survey results from a YouGov study found that 50 per cent of employers would not consider employing offenders or ex-offenders. Figures from the work and pensions select committee reveal the extent of the problem with just 26.5 per cent of prisoners entering employment after release, despite the fact that having a job can aid their rehabilitation.

Civic duty

Business in the Community (BITC), a Prince of Wales community charity established in the wake of the Toxteth and Brixton Riots in 1982, has promoted the “Ban the Box” campaign to, quite literally, ban the tick box in job applications which ask if the candidate has a criminal conviction.

The campaign is a worldwide one and has been endorsed by former United States president Barack Obama. In the rail industry, the likes of Costain, Amey, ISS and Virgin Trains have all committed to creating fair employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

Virgin Trains has banned the box since February 2016 and has run an employment programme for ex-offenders since 2011 driven by Richard Branson, who said he hopes that ex-offenders can represent 10 per cent of the Virgin Group’s future workforce. Virgin Trains now only asks candidates about criminal convictions once an initial job offer has been made.

Lead recruiter Kathryn Wildman said it was about assessing the candidates on their capabilities and where they are in their lives now. She added: “We already work with people with convictions so banning the box seemed a logical step to take given our current work. We do not want to put people off applying for roles with us and would like to make our decisions based on where the candidate is now and what they can add to our business.”

Costain joined the list of Ban the Box employers in 2017 as part of its goal to create a workforce that is reflective of society. Corporate responsibility manager James York said: “[Ex-offenders] have something to contribute to society, and they’re being unfairly prevented from a second chance. It isn’t just our civic duty to give ex-offenders a fair chance of finding work, it makes total business sense for us and the wider UK economy.”

Benefits to society

Earlier this year David Lammy MP released a report into the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in the criminal justice system. The Lammy Review highlighted that for every 100 white men sentenced to custody after being convicted at crown court, 112 black men go to jail, despite BAME people making up just 14 per cent of the UK. This racial disparity consequentially means that more ex-offenders with a spent conviction of a BAME demographic could find obstacles to finding employment. Banning the box could therefore help to increase diversity of the workforce.

BITC employment campaign manager Nicola Inge said that research has shown that having a job can reduce an individual’s chances of re-offending by up to 50 per cent – saving society up to £15 billion a year. She added: “Research we conducted earlier this year highlighted legal concerns that employers could be falling foul of indirect discrimination laws if they are not assessing candidates with convictions fairly.

“A culture change is needed within [the UK] to ensure qualified applicants with criminal records are treated fairly – and Ban the Box, asking employers to remove the tick box from recruitment forms, is a critical part of the solution.”

By banning the box, employers are making it easier for ex-offenders to find employment. They are also showing they are open minded, socially responsible businesses and increasing the pool of skilled and experienced workers they can access – 10 million have a criminal record according to BITC. At a time when the industry is suffering from a skills shortage, this talent pool could prove to be a valuable addition to the workforce.

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