Blog – Government publishes summary of responses to call for evidence on the employment of people with convictions

Last week, more than a year since the consultation closed, the Cabinet Office published a summary of responses to their Call for Evidence (CfE) on employing people with convictions. But what does this summary of responses mean for the future? This blog looks at some of the promising signs, some areas for improvement, and questions the lack of any recommendations from government.

The report draws together responses from 76 organisations – a small sample for a national consultation, but that in itself tells us how much work there is to do. The report indicates that the public sector could do more to increase employment of people with convictions but highlights some pockets of good practice in the voluntary sector.

Firstly, the evidence is promising

The responses are promising – 76 organisations from the voluntary (46%), private (32%), and public (14%) sectors responded to the Call for Evidence. Overall, 73% of the organisations that responded said they hire people with a criminal conviction, either directly or through intermediary companies, suppliers or contractors. Over half (56%) of them ask about convictions in a later stage of the recruitment process (i.e. during interview, at the offer stage, etc.) – with 33% asking at the job offer stage. Public sector respondents were particularly poor at this – 71% ask at the initial stage. The chart below shows that the voluntary sector tends to ask the question about convictions at a later stage compared to the private and public sectors – although there is clearly much more work to do with all sectors.

Of those that ask about convictions, when in the recruitment process do they ask?

In summarising the response, the report states: “The Call for Evidence has provided very useful insights for the Civil Service and organisations in general on how to engage in activities that support people with a conviction in finding employment. Furthermore, the Call for Evidence has helped to identify barriers and challenges, both within and outside organisations, when employing people with convictions, and highlights the need for a communication strategy on the benefits of this practice.”

The key messages from the analysis are at the end of this blog, and the report concludes by saying the results highlight how having specific recruitment practices and employability initiatives that reduce the barriers to employment for people with criminal records could have positive impact on the individuals involved, the organisations they are part of, and wider society as a whole in the long term.”

However, 76 responses is a very low number of employers and the proportion of private and public sectors is much lower than it should be. Most respondents were already actively engaged in recruiting from this population. It feels like this call for evidence was a missed opportunity to engage with a much wider range of employers across all sectors. How might the lessons from this call for evidence be used to engage with employers in the future?

There are positives in the analysis

  • Languageour response to the call for evidence explained why we use person-first language – people with convictions, not ex-offenders. We’re not taking credit for this, but the response refers to people with convictions, using the term ex-offenders only when referring to the questions asked and the initial title of the call for evidence. This alone is a really big step forward, and we hope it reflects an active decision by the Cabinet Office to use person-first language – and that it will be adopted by colleagues across Whitehall.
  • Highlights the variety of excellent work being done – predominantly by the third sector – in supporting people with convictions into, and during, employment.
  • Underlines the value to employers of recruiting people with convictions. In our experience, hearing from employers who already do this cuts through and shows other employers what can be achieved. For example, one respondent said “These staff tend to work extremely well, are productive and eager to learn. They are committed, have a good understanding and knowledge of themselves making for a supportive team member”

There are some areas for improvement

  • The majority of respondents ask at application stage. Even if the employer takes a proactive approach to people with convictions, there’s rarely a need to ask all applicants at this stage and the Cabinet Office should take this as an action to look at wider promotion of Ban the Box, including considering placing it on a statutory footing
  • The issue of enhanced checks and security vetting. This paragraph in the analysis raises some concerns –In relation to the security clearance level needed for the role, out of the 76 organisations, only 64% responded. Of these, the large majority need to conduct a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, or an enhanced DBS. A few others indicated they required a full security clearance, vetting checks, or Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check.” Respondents might have used DBS check/enhanced DBS check interchangeably but it’s worth thinking about the implications of this. It could be a function of the large number of voluntary organisations who proactively recruit from this population – lived experience/peer roles etc. It’s interesting that a significant majority of employers require enhanced checks, security clearance and vetting – if employers in sensitive fields can recruit people with convictions, surely mainstream employers can do more too? It’s a shame this wasn’t analysed further. It could also be a misunderstanding of the ‘need’ to conduct a basic check. And I’d be interested to see how many say they need ‘CRB checks’ – it makes you wonder how out of date their processes are (the CRB was replaced by the DBS over 6 years ago!)

No clear recommendations from government

Although publishing a summary of responses and carrying out some analysis of them is helpful, a “summary of responses” is very different to a “government response”. There are no concrete recommendations or actions that the government is taking in response to this consultation – and it’s unclear why not. In the “conclusions and next steps” section, the report states “The value of this Call for Evidence does not merely derive from the immediate actions taken as a result of it, but from inspiring further Civil Service and Government reforms in this field. The Civil Service looks forward to working with its stakeholders to be more inclusive, and promoting a culture that supports people with convictions on their path to employment.”

Yet the report makes no mention of these “immediate actions”. And what are the “further Civil Service and Government reforms”? Given the time it’s taken the publish this summary, and the lack of any further clear commitments, one wonders whether this reflects a deprioritisation of this work for the Cabinet Office?

There has been some progress since we made our own submission back in August last year, and below as an addition to this blog we’ve set out how things have progressed against the areas that we called for government action on. Given the importance of this work, the Cabinet Office had a real opportunity to set the scene by producing a detailed response to this call for evidence and making a number of commitments. Given what ended up being published, we’ll be raising this with both the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice, who jointly published the initial consultation, to understand what their future plans are.

Promising signs from the civil service pilot

One thing that the summary of responses does highlight is the progress that has been made on the Civil Service pilot scheme, ‘Going Forward into Employment’ (GFiE), where people in prison and near to release have been matched to fixed-term office-based and field-based jobs in participating government departments, via a two-year recruitment exception route. We know that there has been an evaluation done of this pilot, and it seems that this Call for Evidence was initiated (at least in part) to support that project. It’s positive that the pilot is now continuing as a mainstream programme which looks at a range of other groups as well, including veterans, and I hope that the programme will be able to offer more opportunities to those people with convictions who are serving sentences in the community, as well as those near to release from prison who were the focus of the initial pilot. We hope that the evaluation of the pilot is published so that there is a better understanding of how it works and what lessons have been learnt.

Written by Christopher Stacey, Co-director at Unlock

Progress since we made our submission

Written by Rachel Tynan, Policy and practice lead at Unlock

Unlock’s submission to the consultation last year emphasised the need for fair recruitment practices, the range of issues to consider when developing employability initiatives, and evidence on what works and what needs to change so that law abiding people with convictions can secure employment. We called on the government to: 

  1. Develop a cross-government strategy on employment of people with convictions 
  2. Pilot financial incentives for employers who pro-actively recruit people with convictions 
  3. Put Ban the Box on a legislative footing 
  4. Fix the broken DBS filtering system 
  5. Develop a legal framework to ensure individuals’ right to be forgotten where convictions are spent  
  6. Support the Private Members’ Bill on amending the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974  

Looking at the areas we called on the government to look at, below we’ve set out how things have progressed since:

Cross government strategy

Since the CfE the government has launched the New Futures Network and a new ROTL framework. The Ministry of Justice and Department for Work and Pensions have launched a three year programme, working in partnership. By committing resources to the recruitment of people with convictions the government has signalled its intent – but as the report shows, there is a lot of work to do.

Ban the Box

Our submission stressed how putting Ban the Box on a legislative footing – or even finding ways to incentivise business to sign up –  would signal government’s commitment to ensuring people with convictions have a fair chance of employment. Disappointingly, only around 30% of organisations responding to the CfE knew about Ban the Box suggesting much more needs to be to increase awareness and encourage take-up. There are 140 employers now signed up to Ban the Box but clearly a long way to go. Based on this evidence, we think the government should be more strident in its approach to employers.

Filtering

Since the CfE the Supreme Court ruled that the current filtering rules are unlawful and must be changed in two key respects – the multiple conviction rule was found to be disproportionate, and reprimands and warnings (followed by youth cautions) should not be disclosed. We have written to the government calling on them to implement changes in line with the ruling, but also to commit to carrying out a fundamental review of the wider regime. The government is yet to formally respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

Reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

Looking at the range of recruitment practices reported to the CfE, most employers still ask about criminal records at application stage – echoing Unlock’s research last year which found that three-quarters of national employers do just that.

We know that this is hugely off putting to people with criminal records –  over half of people with a criminal record say they would not apply for a job where they needed to disclose their criminal record. 75% of employers discriminate against an applicant with a conviction.

Not only is asking at application stage off-putting, it’s also unnecessary – and very likely a breach of the GDPR. In the absence of clear guidance or enforcement action from the Information Commissioner’s Office, employers are unlikely to change these practices, and again we call on government to take legislative steps to ensure Ban the Box becomes the norm.

This also highlights the discrimination people with convictions face. Most convictions will eventually become spent, but people can find themselves out of work, or only able to secure temporary or unskilled work in the meantime. The economic impact hits the individual, their family and wider society – can we afford that? That’s why we have and continue to call on government to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. In July the Ministry of Justice announced plans to reform the criminal records regime to improve employment prospects and we look forward to working with the new Secretary of State on this.

Key messages from the analysis

The summary of responses includes a set of “key messages from the analysis”. These were:

a. There are some indications (from the respondents to this Call for Evidence) that variations exist across the different sectors in relation to employing people with criminal records and at which stage of the recruitment this information is taken into account. Asking about criminal records should not constitute a barrier or a filtering criteria for offering employment;

b. Organisations that employ people with convictions across different roles – and responsibilities – reported having positive experiences, and affirmed that this part of the workforce constitutes an important asset thanks to their skills, commitment and experiences;

c. Attitudinal barriers across stakeholders, including customers, colleagues, and even people with criminal records themselves, are reported to be the main challenges to offering employment to someone with a conviction; consequentially cultural change is likely needed;

d. It is important to have activities that support and prepare people with convictions to be in the job market; examples are CV surgeries, mock interviews, mentoring schemes;

e. There is the need to produce and collect more robust evidence – in addition to case studies – that prove the positive impact of hiring people with convictions.

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