The way insurers lock out people with court convictions is bizarre

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Mainstream home and car insurers have a blanket ban on people with unspent convictions – these kinds of policies are unfair and sometimes illegal

To many of the 1.2 million people convicted in court each year, it comes as a surprise to find that if they try to take out home insurance, or renew their existing policy, they’ll probably struggle. Every mainstream home insurer has a blanket ban on people with unspent convictions.

They say that ex-offenders are higher risk, citing vigilantism, arson and potential reoffending as some of the justifications. Many motor insurers do the same. Put simply, insurers use unspent convictions as a proxy for risk.

But research shows that those with a stable job, home and lifestyle are much less likely to reoffend. They become contributors to the system, rather than a burden. If we want people with convictions to be integrated into society, we have deal with the obstacles that stand in their way. If we would rather exclude them and treat them differently, we should not be surprised if stubbornly high reoffending rates continue to plague our failing criminal justice system.

Dubious practices
Insurers have the right to make risk judgments – they regularly load premiums for those living in high-crime areas – but their approach to criminal records is bizarre for an industry based on assessing risk. They place significant emphasis on whether a conviction is still unspent, which is determined by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

We must learn to allow people to move on with their lives once they have paid their debt to society

This affects a lot of people. If you’re convicted of an offence and receive a fine, your conviction remains unspent for a year. And if you’re sentenced to four years or more in prison – as 7,000 people a year in the UK are – your conviction will never be spent.

Insurers are not legally allowed to consider spent convictions when they give you a quote. But it’s an arbitrary line: when it’s unspent, they refuse to quote; once it’s spent, they are not allowed to know.

Yet many insurers fail to make it clear that people don’t need to disclose spent convictions. Hidden away in Churchill’s online assumptions for home insurance, it states that you must “have never been convicted of any criminal offence (other than motoring convictions)”. This statement potentially covers the 10.5 million people in the UK that have a criminal record (excluding motoring offences). At best, this is bad practice. At worst, it’s unlawful – insurers have a legal duty to follow data protection and disclosure legislation. People with spent convictions have a legal right to access the same insurance as anybody else and insurers need to be clear with their customers about this.

Ending discrimination
This problem is not new. Nearly 12 years ago, the Guardian’s prisons correspondent Eric Allison wrote about insurance companies denying cover to ex-offenders. In research carried out by Unlock in 2010, 86% of former prisoners said it was harder to get insurance and four-fifths said that when they did get it, they were charged more. This prevents people from getting a mortgage, driving vehicles, securing employment and starting up small businesses.

Things have improved. Unlock runs an online disclosure calculator to help people work out if their convictions are still unspent. If they are unspent, it’s not impossible to get insurance – there are specialist brokers – but little competition can mean increased prices.

Critically, we have never seen any robust evidence for the claim that correlates criminal records and higher risk. Quite the opposite. The specialist brokers that work quietly behind the scenes have some of the best claims ratios of all of their customers.

Mainstream insurers must stop this discrimination. Not only would it demonstrate corporate social responsibility, but there is a strong business case for entering a market that has higher premiums and low claims ratios. They could be developing more progressive, data-driven, risk-pricing models. The Financial Conduct Authority should regard this as a market failure and raise access issues that come as a result of insurers not doing proper risk-profiling.

Ultimately, we must learn to allow people to move on with their lives once they have paid their debt to society.

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