Graeme Bell – Volunteer worker with Unlock Employment.
I used to think that Wallace and Gromit were fictious characters. That is until I became aware of the unrelenting Wallace and Gromit like invention which has got its ruthless claws into our British system. I call it: the trash-can divert system. Those unfortunate enough to have to tick the box on the application form which says yes to a previous criminal conviction will be well-experienced in the judgmental mechanics of the trash-can divert system.
Yes, indeed, the trash can divert system. I would go as far as to say, in fact, that ticking that criminal conviction box is as good as not applying for the job in the first place. Thus, begins the gruelling hamster wheel of post-conviction living. That interminable limbo which has all the promise of rehabilitation and reintegration but never the realisation.
Does it have to be this way? Yes, employers need to know about an applicant’s personal history as potentially they are preparing to make a commitment with them; however, the question is: can a single tick box really suffice? I mean, where is the space to detail that which is infinitely more relevant : the recovery, rehabilitation, and redemption of the applicant. Simply by ticking that single box, a person is cast off into an abyss; for some it is a self-perpetuating process which is never broken and they return to crime without being given a chance; they are denied a hand up, an opportunity to change.
There has been a crusade to ban the box for a while but for Steven W Thrasher, writing in the Guardian, “the crusade to ban the box is too limited, there is a lot more that could be done.” The author is of the opinion that companies should discount a person’s history to a point. The author thinks it may well be too radical to say how and why your past history should define you, label you.
But, why, I hear you ask, should we even bother to do something about this? Well, depending on what statistical analysis you read, it affects between nine to twelve million people in the UK – is that not reason enough?
There are many people with unspent convictions who, if they are being honest, should be ticking the box but who choose to take the risk of not ticking it and not being found out. One reason for doing this is that they are scared of being pigeon holed as an ex offender rather than a human being; they have been rejected so many times; they realize it is pointless as no one will take a chance on them. Ticking that box is as good as binning their application form or posting their application off to Wallace and Gromit themselves.
Employers are evidently not listening to social commentary, statistics or academia- being myopic isn’t helping. Dr Beth Weaver, an Academic at Strathclyde University, considers the plight of the hapless victims of the Wallace and Gromit machine and believes companies should be taking a different perspective. According to the research, there is no corelation between revealing a criminal record and the likelihood or unlikelihood of reoffending. Weaver is of the opinion that it is beneficial, indeed mutually beneficial, for companies to ask at a later stage of the process about the prospective employee’s relationship with the criminal justice system. Perhaps after identifying the merits and desirability of the applicant they are more likely to consider the individual details of the conviction and to see, what often turns out to be, the mitigating aspects of the bigger picture. They should consider the girl who has a record for possession of cannabis but only bought it as her mother was dying of M.S. Or the gifted and talented man with the conviction for violence which only came about as he tried to extricate himself from the iron grip of gang culture in his deprived area.
Weaver’s research has suggested that someone with a past history of conviction is no more prone or likely to reoffend about seven or ten years later than someone that has no convictions. She goes on to say, that even people who themselves have a criminal history are less likely to employ somebody with a criminal record even if their risk is no greater than somebody who has never offended.
In my opinion, employers seriously have to wake up to the fact that they are ignoring a massive pool of talent. Ignoring such a pool of talent at this time of Brexit, when there will soon be a lack of influx from skilled foreign workers, and at this time of Covid recovery, with its decimating threat to the economy is surely a cutting the nose to spite the face endeavour. If employers looked to the potential first rather than the past, if genuine conversations were had rather than applications binned, then this would have a massive benefit to both the economy and individual mental health recovery.
I also believe that it would have a massive impact on the prison population. Research shows that employment reduces offending by up to fifty percent. It is in every culture’s best interest to lessen the barriers, blockades and obstacles to work for people with a criminal history of course personal questions have to be asked: why did you offend, what are you like now, why should I give you a chance? If you give that person a chance you would in some way reduce the cost of incarceration which reportedly costs up to thirteen billion each year. The ministry of justice estimate a prison place costs £37,648 each year.
I am not asking for much. To trust people, give someone a chance. Could not legislation be passed to make it a requirement for all application forms to seek evidence of rehabilitation where applicable. For some though, this would be a massive cultural shift, similar to driving on the other side of the road. It would take an effort to change road signs, paint roads but then it would happen.
It is also important to point out the way women are affected by this situation. Studies have shown that the opportunities for women to find employment with a criminal conviction are less for women than for men. The Prison Reform Trust has suggested that fewer than one in ten women have a job to go to when they are released from prison. There are employers out there who are prepared to hold a conversation with ex-offenders like Virgin, Sacro. There is even a group who have signed up to being ban the box employers. More should follow their lead. As of the 7th of October 2020, over 145 employers have signed up to the Ban the Box, covering more than 980,000 roles. Imagine with a little more cultural change what positive effects we could have which could be mutually beneficial?
People don’t deserve to be punished perpetually. By making it a legal requirement to offer space in an application form which would allow the applicant to provide an explanation of their conviction then, hopefully, it would go some way to enable the applicant to be taken seriously after making a mistake which they have visibly learned from. Statistics prove that, by giving people a chance, there will be a positive effect on our economy and a positive effect on mental health. This would put a spoke in the wheel of the vicious cycle of unemployment, anti-depression medication, crime and prison. Therefore, our society would be as happy as children on Christmas Day watching a Wallace and Gromit production.
The impression that prisons guide their clientele to lead a different future is balderdash. The UK is an extremely castigatory and punitive culture, and it doesn't surprise me that so many employers in our society want to go on punishing people after they have completed their sentence. A culture shift, like driving in the other side of the road is needed. Take people as individuals, have the conversation, extend the box. Time to get rid of the Wallace and Gromit invention.