Are prejudiced employers missing out on a huge labour pool?
Five million people in the UK have a criminal record and, according to the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), a third of all males have a conviction for something other than motoring offences by the time they're 30. Can employers afford to exclude such a large pool of labour?
Persuading employers that ex-offenders can be good employees is like pulling teeth, says Joe McCann, marketing manager of the Apex Trust, the charity which helps ex-offenders find work. 'Two or three per cent (of offenders) have degrees, 14% have GCSEs or A levels; excluding these people is a dreadful waste.' One example that Apex cites is that of British Rail.
BR asked Apex to help encourage ex-offenders to apply for jobs: 60 offenders were hired successfully; only three left the company, and none re-offended.
Looking at the nature of the offence as a bar to recruitment, McCann makes the point that 'attitudes within a mining company will be different to those for a nursery school'.
A recruitment scheme for market research company FDS International, however, had problems. Actively looking for 16-24 year-olds in prison who might be suitable to train as telephone interviewers, the scheme was part-funded through Apex and the local TEC. In the end FDS only hired two people. Group services director Sheila Carey recalls: 'Of those offered an interview only a third turned up. Attributes such as commitment and punctuality were often non-existent, their complicated personal lives sometimes interfered with work - and our supervisors were ill-equipped to cope.' The two recruits, however, proved to be motivated and successful.
Marks & Spencer claims its recruitment policy is to consider ex-offenders on their merits, taking into account the nature of the conviction. Once agreed that the offence is irrelevant or of low risk to the job, the applicant is treated like any other. Otherwise the shutters are put up. One executive recruitment specialist in Manchester says: 'Fraud is the kiss of death, and even the hint of a deliberate intent to mislead, conviction or no, would mean instant rejection.'
In law, though, ex-offenders have some latitude on revelations about spent convictions. An offence carrying imprisonment of up to 30 months is considered spent after 10 years; for longer sentences, the conviction is never spent. Stephanie Gordon, lawyer at Hammond Suddards, explains: 'Once a conviction is spent, it's as though it never happened, and if an employer finds out about it and sacks the individual, the employee can claim unfair dismissal if he or she has been in the job for two years.' However, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 has exclusions for occupations such as nursing, law, accountancy, pharmacy, defence. The new Criminal Records Agency (CRA) marks a radical (and some would say worrying) departure. Employers can use it to check on convictions.
Malcolm Fraser, whose company MCF makes aluminium products, will not be using the CRA. 'I'll consider anyone who can do the job; for many ex-offenders, their job is their life and they are very reliable.' Employers, he points out, still tend to act on their first impressions.