Criminal records and employment

Criminal records and employment

Almost three-quarters of the UK’s national companies ask about criminal records on job application forms. That’s the headline finding of research published last week by Unlock, a charity I’m co-director of and which advocates on behalf of people facing stigma and other challenges because they have a criminal record.

"All the countries I visited on my Fellowship travels had ways of protecting, deleting or expunging criminal records after a certain period of time."

When employers use a candidate’s criminal record as a reason to halt an application, they are reinforcing a really significant stigma. Talented people are being stifled. They might be put off applying for the next job.

I’ve worked for Unlock for over a decade and I was given a criminal record myself as a teenager, so I understand and have experienced how disproportionately strict the UK’s criminal records system is. I want to help bring about change.

In 2014 and 2015 I travelled to France, Spain and Sweden on a Churchill Fellowship to learn about how these countries approach the disclosure of criminal records for recruitment. I encountered environments quite different to the UK. Employers in these countries do not routinely ask about criminal records on job application forms. Indeed, it was a surprise to many of the people I met on my travels that employers in the UK do.

For the last five years, Unlock have been running a campaign called ‘Ban the Box’ in partnership with Business in the Community. It’s a business-led, voluntary campaign that is calling on employers to remove questions about criminal records from job application forms and to help remove barriers for people with past criminal records. So far, over 110 companies have signed up, including big names such as Barclays, Boots, Virgin Trains and the civil service.

We’ve also worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office to produce guidance to help employers ensure that their policy on collecting criminal records data is compliant with the new EU-wide GDPR rules (General Data Protection Regulation). To comply with GDPR, employers have to justify why they’re collecting data at the point they’re collecting it. If employers are saying that they’re not using information about criminal records at the application stage, then they shouldn’t ask for it at that point.

Looking beyond the issue of employment practices, I’d like to see the Government fundamentally review the criminal records regime. All the countries I visited on my Fellowship travels had ways of protecting, deleting or expunging criminal records after a certain period of time. In France, for example, a process called ‘judicial rehabilitation’ allows an individual to apply to a court to no longer be forced to disclose their criminal record. The process takes into account the actions and behaviour of the individual since the end of their sentence, creating the sense that their new status is earned.

We need to see similar practices in the UK so that people are no longer being held back, because it’s widely accepted that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which is the main piece of legislation designed to help people with convictions, doesn’t go far enough in protecting people from unnecessary stigma and discrimination long after they’ve served their sentence.

Looking back, the Fellowship was so valuable to me. When you’re knee-deep in a job, you can risk becoming almost desensitised to the broader context of the issues you work on. The Fellowship gave me the opportunity to step out from the day-to-day in a way that allowed me to think a little bigger and broader.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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