Sean Duffy: Disclosure – time to exercise discretion, not discrimination

Sean Duffy

Sean Duffy highlights new research showing how criminal record declarations undermine the concept of rehabilitation.

Recent research from the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice (SCCJ) called into further question the value of criminal record declarations on job application forms. Indeed, the research showed that not only does the criminal record tick box do little to accurately predict the risk of re-offending, in some cases, people without a criminal conviction are more likely to offend than those with a previous conviction. Why then the often-made and too-seldom challenged assumption that candidates with a previous conviction are too much of a risk to hire?

At the Wise Group, I work alongside people with convictions every day. They’re not regarded as ‘others’. They’re simply colleagues. More than 50 per cent of our Community Justice mentors have direct experience of the justice system and imprisonment, and I can say unequivocally that their perspective, loyalty and empathy makes us more rounded as an enterprise and better able to deliver on our social and fiscal objectives. The support that our mentors demonstrate is crucial in helping our customers to rebuild their lives, and to break the cycle of re-offending across Scotland and North East England. Yet every day in our work we witness the devastating impact of informal discrimination on people with convictions as they strive to find employment.

A typical example: Tom* committed a criminal offence – a non-violent crime with no direct victim. The only time he’s broken the law, he was sentenced to a three-month prison term. Before Tom’s imprisonment he was in full-time work, with an exemplary employment history. Since serving his sentence he has made repeated and sustained attempts to rebuild his life but has found himself effectively unemployable, because his criminal convictions mean his job applications get no further than the first sift. Now, repeated job rejections have left him bankrupt.

I’ve had the chance to get to know Tom as he’s engaged with our services. He has a partner and is a dad to four children - two of whom are autistic. Tom’s mentor at the Wise Group has worked with Tom since before his release from prison. His mentor has helped Tom to prepare and plan for life in the community, to navigate the often-perplexing benefits system, and to gain his forklift licence in preparation for work. Tom’s behaviour has been impeccable since his release. He has a fierce desire to work. He’s desperate to provide for his family. Yes, he made a mistake, as many of us do at some point in our lives, but the price that Tom and his family continue to pay is disproportionate to the offence, and benefits no-one.

An estimated one-in-three men in Scotland have a criminal conviction. The current criminal record tick box so often used on job application forms, frequently condemns people like Tom to continuing unemployment for offences that may be decades old, or which have no relevance or bearing on their ability to do a job. Sifting on the basis of a tick-box potentially discounts a huge swath of available talent and resource – and tells a potential employer nothing about an individual’s skills, abilities and ambition.

Do you have a criminal conviction? Yes or no. It’s that stark, but it shouldn’t be. Ticking a box can turn the past into an insurmountable barrier for many jobseekers, without ever giving them a chance to showcase their experience and talent to potential employers. The process is effectively seeing the past not the person.

UK government figures show only 26.5 per cent of prisoners enter employment after release. This is disturbingly low. Few things reduce reoffending more powerfully than a payslip: a change in approach won’t only help job applicants, but could provide much needed savings within the public spending arena, running into the hundreds of millions.

There are encouraging signs: more than 300 businesses across the UK are actively recruiting ex-offenders. Forward-thinking employers like Virgin, and networks like Release Scotland, which encourage employers to see the person, not their past, are leading the way on this.

Feedback from employers who recruit people with convictions is overwhelmingly positive, yet I can understand that some employers, particularly SMEs, are wary: afraid to take the chance, as they see it. I’d argue however that ignoring such a large and potentially skilled and loyal labour resource presents a bigger risk.

A recent study into UK recruitment challenges found that 82 per cent of SME’s are struggling to recruit the right talent to grow their business. The issue is particularly pertinent in Scotland, where SMEs make up over 99 per cent of private sector businesses, providing an estimated 1.2 million jobs. Could a change in approach to hiring people with convictions – aside from being the morally right course of action – also help these employers weather the headwinds of Brexit and a shrinking labour pool?

When it comes to sifting job applications I’d call on all employers to exercise their own discretion, not blanket discrimination. Allow Tom and others with convictions a fair chance. That doesn’t mean not asking about convictions: just that it should come later in the recruitment process, once you’ve seen the person.

This isn’t about banning disclosure. This is about the way employers interpret and use disclosure. We need to see a cultural shift in the way employers view those with a different past to their own. In building the Scotland we want to be proud of we have a duty to challenge prejudice and promote fairness for everyone, including those who’ve made mistakes and who want to move beyond them. Working with partners – employers, campaigners, and people with lived experience alike – I and the Wise Group want to help drive that change.

I’d be delighted to welcome to the Wise Group any employers considering hiring beyond the box, and to share our experiences of how recruiting with conviction has changed our business for the better.

*Tom did not want to divulge his full name due to the continuing stigma over criminal convictions.

Sean Duffy is chief executive of The Wise Group