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A trying 12 months for Europe has proved a painful eye-opener for many nations, but with lessons learnt, 2011 promises to be better for all.

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Spencer Green
Chairman, GDS International

Sales and the 'Talent Magnet'

A lot is written about being a ‘Talent Magnet’, either as a company, or as President. It’s all good practice – listen, mentor, reward, provide clear goals and career maps. Good practice for the employer, but what about the employee?
25 May 2011

Breaking the cycle

By Ian Clover

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T he Recovery Special looks at how ex-offenders – long excluded from the workplace due to stringent employment regulations – can offer a boon for the economy, so long as they are finally given a chance by society. Ian Clover investigates.

“Unemployed ex-offenders are twice as likely to return to a life of crime compared to those who find employment after leaving jail”

There is no single linear policy that will drag Europe's leading nations out of recession. Instead, countries have each embarked upon their own path toward recovery with varying degrees of success. The French have proposed increasing state pensionable age by two years in an effort to offset their deficit; the UK has earmarked similar proposals while also introducing some harsh austerity cuts in its public sector; The Spanish, Irish and Greeks have all implemented tough cuts in an attempt to eat into their deficit, and even economic powerhouse Germany - stung by hefty eurozone bailouts to its fellow members - will be introducing €7 billion worth of cuts a year until 2016 in an attempt to control its deficit, which currently stands at €65 billion.

The measures being taken are merely responses to the symptoms of a struggling economy - few actually address the causes. Making individuals work for longer will offer a short-term, measurable boon for the economy, but it is hardly a measure that will get to the root of the current economic malaise that has so bedevilled Europe over the past two years. Spending cuts, too, are exactly that - measures taken by the government that cut into society and actively impact negatively on people's quality of life, leading to more misery before things even begin to improve.

In thrashing around for solutions, governments across the continent are acutely aware of their own PR image, and will do all they can to keep bad press to a minimum. So it would take a brave leader indeed to use these times of uncertainty and shaky recovery to advocate more progressive measures for ex-offenders and ex-prisoners.

Public attitude towards criminals, especially in a downturn, tends to drift toward the conservative, with the 'lock 'em up' brigade the most vociferous on the matter. In their eyes, law-abiding citizens come first, and only once their problems have been addressed should a politician or government even begin to countenance introducing measures aimed at alleviating restrictions on criminals' liberty.

Faced with such vocal public opposition, few governments will take steps to radically overhaul how a nation's 'criminals' - be it prisoners or those with a criminal record - are treated. Recent calls in the UK for the prison population to be given the vote have sparked healthy debate, but attitudes towards those who have 'done wrong' are largely unyielding, and it is these rigid beliefs that are adding to the financial woes of many European countries.

British statistics on crime would appear to paint a very stark picture. The UK's Ministry of Justice estimates that approximately 25 percent of males of working age have a criminal record. This is one quarter of the country's potential male workforce that is either excluded from the job market or forced to dramatically restrict the types of jobs they are able to apply for. A criminal record stays with you, making it fiendishly difficult to gain meaningful employment, even though the UK government is attempting to do all it can to get more people off benefits and into work.

"These days, we have become obsessed with carrying out criminal record checks for employment purposes, despite the fact that there has never been any good evidence that ex-offenders are a problem in the workplace," says Mervyn Barrett, Head of Resettlement Information at Nacro, a charity that works with disadvantaged people, offenders and those at risk of offending, in order to reduce crime.

Nacro has recently appealed to the British government to overhaul the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which it feels is out of date. In the eyes of the law, there are eight million adults in the UK with a criminal record, and a large majority of these individuals will find it difficult to secure a job. The result? They are a burden to the taxpayer - whether they are sent to prison or are excluded from contributing to society and instead have little option but to claim benefits.

"Research conducted by the Chartered Institute for Personal Development indicates that employers' experience of employing ex-offenders have been far more positive than negative," says Barrett. "This isn't surprising because the reality is that most people with records - and we're talking about a very large proportion of the population - seek work for the same reasons as those without: to earn a living. Few people with criminal records have ulterior motives in seeking employment."

Public perception

The public gets the government it wants, the media it wants and the political decisions it wants, most of the time. Therefore, the treatment of prisoners is a reflection of public will - prisons are where punishment comes first and rehabilitation comes second, and offenders are made to pay for their mistakes for the rest of their lives. The current job market restrictions are an extension of this.

"There is this association in the minds of employers with ex-offenders and risks in terms of the workplace," says Barrett. "The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) needs changing. We have gone from a position 25 years ago where there was absolute astonishment that we were carrying out 100,000 police checks a year for employment vetting purposes. I remember thinking at the time what had gone wrong in society that necessitated that many checks? These days, we're carrying out millions of CRB checks a year - in 2009 it was four million. We are going to have at some point the introduction of this controversial vetting barring scheme, which will lead to millions more such checks, and if at some point the CRB introduce basic disclosure checks, we will effectively have a system of universal criminal record checks. So that means there will be no escaping from one's criminal record."

Many will read that last sentence and think 'well, good.' A society that can fully vet, check and monitor its population, identifying those with a criminal record, is surely utopian? Most definitely not, argues Barrett.

"Imagine all of the discrimination and social exclusion that will result from that. The reality is that there are a great deal of employers, recruitment agencies and colleges running checks - CRB checks in particular - and they will exclude anyone with anything on their CRB. As a nation, that is not something we can afford to allow to continue."

In an ideal world, nobody would have a criminal record. But the reality is that society can only function with laws, which inevitably leads to lawbreakers. As Winston Churchill noted, how that society then treats its criminals is a measure upon which it should be judged. "We are creating this large pool of unemployed people living on benefits solely because they have a criminal record," says Barrett.

So where should change come from? Barrett believes the CRB checks were initially government-driven, but their impact has been so great that society now demands that employers know all they can about one's past. "CRB checks were very much introduced on the basis that government believed it was the best practice in terms of the recruitment of ex-offenders. It was a managerial approach to criminal record checks; it wasn't ideologically driven at all.

"But as a result of that top-down managerial approach," continues Barrett, "it has led to societal change. Employers increasingly feel the need to carry out checks on the basis that if something were to go wrong, they are covered. The UK, as a society, has become very risk-averse as opposed to being risk-aware."

Cost of criminalisation

Battling economic pressures and public opprobrium cannot be easy, but the British government need only look at the statistics to see that the current cost of criminalising its population is unsustainable, particularly in an economic climate where the more people working, the better. Ministry of Justice figures show that the overall cost of the criminal justice system has increased from two percent of GDP to two and a half percent in the past ten years. This is a higher per capita level than any other EU country, and also higher than the U.S.

The UK leads the way in terms of its prison population too. Latest figures show that there are 84,154 people in prison in the UK, compared to just 56,279 in France (a country with a similar overall population), and even more than in Germany - a country with 20 million more people - where the prison population stands at 75,719.

The average annual cost of keeping somebody in prison is £45,000 (€52,500), and government estimates calculate that the financial cost to society of ex-prisoners re-offending is approximately £11 billion (€13 billion) a year. And with reconviction rates of 70 percent or more in England and Wales, it is obvious that this expensive cycle needs to be broken.

Getting ex-offenders and ex-prisoners into work would appear to be the best course of action. In a survey of 1435 prisoners conducted by the Ministry of Justice, 68 percent said that getting a job was the most important factor in preventing them from re-offending once they leave prison. The same survey estimates that if every one of the 66,000 people released from jail in England and Wales each year had a job to go to, the government would save £300 million (€350 million).

Easier said than done of course, but faced with such telling statistics, the government still appears worryingly hesitant to alter its stance on the current CRB regulations.

Bobby Cummines knows all too well the struggles awaiting a recently released prisoner. As a teen, Cummines became involved in 1960s north London gang life, getting locked away for carrying a sawn-off shotgun and becoming one of the UK's most notorious bank robbers between 1969 and 1988. After a conviction for manslaughter and a total of 13 years spent in Britain's highest security prisons, he vowed to turn his life around.

Upon his release, he worked as a volunteer helping fellow ex-offenders cope with their crimes and life on the outside, became a trained negotiator and suicide counsellor to those with mental health problems and, in 2000, set up the charity UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, which aims to remove the biggest barriers facing ex-offenders when they return to society. Having been an expert advisor to the UK government and House of Commons on all issues pertaining to rehabilitation and reform, Cummines agrees that it is the public's fear and misunderstanding of those with a criminal record that is maintaining this perpetual and expensive cycle of reoffending.

"We've worked with people who have obtained PhDs and have left crime behind. Now, when an employer sees that on a CV, they would rip your arm off to employ you, but as soon as you mention 'criminal record', even for a low-tariff criminal offence, the prejudice comes in. It's very much like people with mental health problems. If you have suffered a nervous breakdown or depression, as soon as it's mentioned at HR level then people shut the door - because they are afraid of what they don't understand."

Whether it's prejudice, fear or discrimination, aversion to employing an individual with a criminal record is not only ingrained into UK business protocol, it's actively encouraged by the stringent measures laid out by the CRB. "Anyone can discriminate against a reformed offender - there's no penalty for that," says Cummines. "When these people are locked out of industry, there is only one industry left for them to turn to - the criminal industry. Surely people would rather have reformed offenders as taxpayers themselves, rather than a burden to taxpayers?"

UNLOCK works to achieve equality for people with convictions and help reintegrate them into society, improving access to things like bank accounts and insurance and linking people to services such as help finding somewhere to live. "This is all basic stuff that the general populace takes for granted. Without a bank account it is pretty impossible to get employment, so we've worked at convincing the banks to give just basic bank accounts to serving prisoners on their way out, and former offenders already on the street." A small, positive step, but still not enough.

Altering attitudes

As part of his work with the UK government, Cummines has held conversations with lawmakers on the need for reforming the current rehabilitation act. "As advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister's Office under John Prescott, we [Cummines and John Denham of the Select Committee] found that if a person hadn't committed a crime within around two years of release, their risk of re-offending was the same as a regular guy on the street," he says. "However, because this message wasn't politically palatable, and it would have been unacceptable to the media, there was no appetite for policy change. That was 2002 and only now are we getting into serious discussions with Government about adopting policy that is based on evidence. At the moment it's the CRB, in effect, that is keeping people in crime rather than protecting the public from crime."

Not all offenders go to prison, so ex-prisoners are in a much smaller minority than those who simply have a couple of misdemeanours on their record. However, not all ex-prisoners are murderers, molesters, drug addicts or rapists. Many have simply made one mistake in their past and wish to move on with their lives. Prison punishes them, but also attempts to rehabilitate them. A lot of hard work and expense goes in to doing so - hard work and expense that is being undermined, Barrett argues, by society's misplaced perception.

"The reality is that there are a group of people coming out of prison and on probation license who have so many problems - whether it be drug addiction, mental health problems, chaotic lifestyles, low literacy levels - that they wouldn't be able to hold down a training place, let alone a job," says Barrett. "However, there are thousands who come out of prison who only have one problem  - the problem of having to disclose their criminal record."

With 25 percent of adult males in the UK carrying a caution, a reprimand or a criminal record, Barrett argues that most people who are flagged up on the CRB system are decent, law-abiding individuals who perhaps made a mistake in their past; a past that the current system does not let them easily forget.

"There's a big self-exclusion issue here," reveals Barrett. "A lot of people will not put themselves forward for jobs because of the shame and embarrassment about what's on their record, and that's often a bigger problem than discrimination itself. Those people in the main are not inclined to reoffend. They just put up with things and lead excluded lives. That said, there are some individuals, particularly those coming out of prison who, if they could get a job, that would positively impact on their likelihood of reoffending."

A solution to this self-perpetuating cycle cannot be reached by policy change alone. Perceptions, at an HR/employment, government and public level have to change. There needs to be better education among employers about what it truly means to be rehabilitated. There needs to be less fear of, and aversion to, criminal records.

"Education in the recruitment sector needs to cover things like the prevalence of offending," says Barrett. "Employers look upon offenders and ex-offenders as that tiny group of people who are in and out of prison, when the reality is that having a criminal record is extremely common. Employers need to understand how common it is, and they need education in issues such as risk and relevance. Many cannot gauge the seriousness of some offences, because the terminology used by the legal and criminal justice system tends to sound a lot worse than the reality."

Regulation review

The new UK coalition government is currently looking at the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. The last review was in 2002 and, as Cummines revealed, the recommendations made by the advisors fell on deaf ears. Barrett is adamant that change has to happen this time around.

"We need legislative reform to try to cut the number of CRB checks we are doing. There are too many jobs that are exempt from the legislation, in some instances employers and local authorities are more or less conducting checks on all of their staff, whether or not the positions are exempt or not, and the CRB is turning a blind eye to this practice. That has to stop."

Cummines' work with UNLOCK also continues to press for legislative change, as well as for more HR training designed to equip staff with the necessary knowledge on how to approach an applicant who may have a criminal record. "Companies should be training staff how to ask the awkward questions. This would help to remove the fear factor that exists in business and help to develop a support system for businesses that are willing to employ people with a criminal record. I'll say it again - that's eight million people on the government index. What business can afford to exclude this section of society from its pool of applicants?"

Not many, is the answer. And certainly not the UK government. There is a heavy financial burden placed on taxpayers to support ex-offenders. Prison is expensive, but rehabilitation is even more so if society does not accept and allow ex-offenders to reintegrate. Jobs play a big part in breaking the cycle of re-offending, and self-reliant, tax-paying, non-criminal individuals are far better for the economy than the current alternative.

The Diamond Project

UNLOCK currently has plans to build a series of villages in all of the UK's largest towns and cities that will help low-tariff offenders break their cycle of offending. Called The Diamond Project, these campus-like centres will focus on those convicted of less serious offences such as drug offences, burglary and minor assault, and will also be open to the long-term unemployed, recovering drug and drink addicts and those at risk of reoffending.

An environment of strict rules and varied opportunity for education would be achieved through trade workshops, a crèche and nursery, sports activities and academic classes.

"The Diamond Project is aimed at low-tariff offenders - I'm talking about the people perceived as pests by society rather than hardened criminals -taking them out of detention centres, out of jails and out of community service into a centre where they can learn a trade and give them a skill, self-reliance and a future away from crime," says Cummines.

There will also be supervised education that focuses on teaching useful skills and knowledge. "We will be training people for jobs, not just qualifications. So the focus will be on engineering, architecture, computing, green energy, biometrics and sustainability - things like that; things that will add value to the country and to the individual."


  • England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe at 147 per 100,000 of the population.
  • France has an imprisonment rate of 91 per 100,000 and Germany has a rate of 95 per 100,000.
  • Unemployed ex-offenders are twice as likely to return to a life of crime compared to those who find employment after leaving jail.
  • The reoffending rate in the UK is 76%, compared to just 45% in Denmark.

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