The government is finally facing calls to change criminal records laws following Lord Dyson's judgment that the current system breaches a person's right to privacy. The judgment arose following the case of a 21-year-old who had been forced to disclose a warning he received as a child for stealing two bicycles.
Coverage of the story so far has involved people with "media-friendly crimes". Mine isn't as endearing as that and is unlikely to be featured in arguments in favour of the new ruling, but I still believe the system should afford myself and others more protection than it currently does.
Between the age of 16 and 18 I gleefully chucked a lifetime of straight As behind me to go off the rails, believing myself to be the female incarnation of Begbie from Trainspotting. I was swiftly removed from school and placed in a pupil referral unit for children with behavioural and mental health problems. Somewhere between leaving the unit and getting kicked out of the house by my parents, I hit another girl at a party – to the point where she needed three stitches. A year later I was fined £100 – relatively low as assault fines go, but as my lawyer assured me, "they don't put away nice girls like you".
Since my first and last attempt at fighting, I've duly ticked all the boxes for things middle-class people seem to find impressive. I've completed an MA. I edited the university newspaper and won a scholarship to train as a journalist. I was nominated for a Guardian Student Media award, despite having never opened a copy of it until I was 22 (people don't read broadsheets where I'm from). The older I got, the more my conviction was a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted crescendo of achievement.
My sentence was more than eight years ago, so is long since spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA). In fact, it was only when I became interested in working with people who were disadvantaged and socially excluded that my confidence in applying for work abruptly disappeared, thanks to the enhanced criminal records check (the former CRB checks now called DBS checks). More specifically, the inconsistency from one company to the next when it comes to handling applicants with a blemished DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) record is staggering. Despite my experience, education and training, every time I start a new job working with vulnerable people I'm at the mercy of employers' individual policies and beliefs on recruiting ex-offenders. The statistics only confirm my view that the ROA does little to protect people, with a paltry 20% of employers knowingly employing an ex-offender even though evidence has consistently shown that they work more, not less, as the result of constantly feeling they have to prove people wrong.
Rather than resisting the new ruling, the government needs to find a way of ensuring the current recruitment process strengthens the safeguards against discrimination. Currently an employer can turn you down for a position if the conviction is "deemed relevant". This is similar to the barrier often faced by people with a disability who are looking for work. But employers already have the "Two Ticks" policy as a way of encouraging disabled applicants, so the only thing stopping a similar scheme for those with a conviction is negative perceptions. In its 2012 report on employers' attitudes to ex-offenders, Working Links proposed the creation of an Offender Discrimination Act. No one's safety needs to be compromised, and at the same time the 9.2 million people in the UK who have criminal records in the UK won't be put off applying for roles requiring disclosure of an irrelevant offence.
After various jobs that ranged from visiting disabled people in their homes to tutoring kids, I've thought a lot about how my conviction could be "deemed relevant". An employer could deem it relevant if, for example, I'd spent almost a decade faking good behaviour as part of a masterplan that involves working in the often badly paid third sector in order to achieve my goal of attacking every work colleague and client in sight. This is preposterous, and yet it's not too far-fetched to suggest that employers are more likely to take this view over a more nuanced one that accepts human fallibility.
With the devastating impact of welfare changes ahead, the government should be embracing Lord Dyson's ruling, not putting up more obstacles for people already at a significant disadvantage.
Sauce @ The Guardian