Stars may be able to put a criminal past behind them, but it's harder for the average person, says Hester Lacey
Big Breakfast presenter Kelly Brook makes a startling confession in the latest issue of GQ magazine. "I had some criminal convictions when I was 14," she told an interviewer. "Not that many. And they've been wiped off my record now. I'm not telling you what I did. Not saying." Ms Brook, generally better known for pulchritude than perspicacity, had evidently forgotten that what is said to journalists tends to get written down and published; she is now hastily explaining that her remarks were a joke, and her lawyers have been in touch with the magazine.

Had she not been joking, however, she probably wouldn't need to worry; in a high-profile position, a bit of a record is not always a handicap. Ms Brook's Big Breakfast co-star Johnny Vaughan has a drugs conviction for which he was sentenced to four years and served 25 months. Vinnie Jones was fresh from community service for assaulting a neighbour when he starred in the hit film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Chelsea coach Graham Rix's job is held open for him while he serves a sentence for sex with an underage girl.

All their careers glitter on; about the one thing they won't be able to do is appear on ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, as all contestants have to sign declarations stating they do not have any criminal convictions. Some ineligibles have already slipped through, including several burglars, much to the embarrassment of the programme's production company, which has introduced a vetting system.

Meanwhile, Andy Kane, aka Handy Andy from BBC1's Changing Rooms, has admitted that he too was a convicted burglar, and Pete King, brickie in the new fly-on-the-wall documentary Builders, has been outed as a former armed robber.

Amazingly, by the age of 40, one in three men has a criminal record of some kind, according to Richard Garside, spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) - though offences vary enormously in seriousness, from murder down to speeding or defaulting on the television licence.

Stars may find it easy enough to put a criminal conviction behind them, but for the less exalted it can be far more difficult. John, 34, formerly a salesman, served a two-year sentence for drug-related offences six years ago. "When I came out, I started applying for fairly senior posts in sales management and got nowhere," he says. "Then I started going for much more junior posts, and still got nowhere. At the moment I'm working as a barman, because in that kind of job they don't ask so many questions."

He has never considered lying about his conviction. "Sooner or later it would come out and I'd lose the job anyway. Employers don't like liars any more than they like criminals." In a year his sentence will be "spent", and he will then not have to disclose it on job application forms. "Then, if I'm pressed to explain the gap, I shall say I spent some time travelling. I've learned that saying you've been in prison just brings the shutters down."

Richard, 31, was luckier. He was sent to prison for a year for assaulting someone during a drunken brawl. He had just started his first job, in a publishing company. "I was incredibly fortunate that the company I was with held my post open for me," he says. "It was partly because I knew the people I was working for quite well - I had already worked for them through college vacations. I wouldn't have been so lucky if I hadn't already built up the relationship. It's hard enough to get a job at all now and if you are an ex-prisoner that's enough to weed you out straight away." He says he now does not mention his previous conviction at all. "It would just be stupid to bring it up. It was a long time ago and it's forgotten."

Mark, 34, was put off applying for certain jobs because he has been arrested and prosecuted twice for the possession of cannabis. "It comes up on application forms - `Have you got a criminal record?' and you have to tick the box, yes or no. What I dislike about that is that it implies dishonesty. I am not dishonest. And since I went to court, times have changed, and today I would almost certainly be cautioned, not prosecuted - it was a tiny amount of cannabis."

Under the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, an offence that carries a sentence of six months or less is "spent" after seven years; a sentence of between six months and two-and-a-half years is spent after 10 years, and a sentence of more than two-and-a-half years is never spent. A fine or community service sentence is spent after five years, and an absolute discharge after six months. "If an employer specifically asks about previous convictions, you are breaking the law if you don't declare any you have," says Nacro's Richard Garside. "If you are not asked, you are not breaking the law if you don't disclose previous convictions. The onus is on the employer to ask, and they can't ask for information about spent convictions, except in certain exempt professions like the police force or the law."

At the moment, it is quite difficult for employers to trace a potential employee's criminal record - employees themselves have to apply to the local police force. However, this will become easier when the central Criminal Record Agency (CRA) is set up next year. "We are concerned at the sweeping nature of the plans to enable employers to obtain details of job applicants' criminal convictions," says Nacro's chief executive, Helen Edwards. It is, she says, entirely reasonable to allow those employing people to work with children and other vulnerable people full access to the criminal records of job applicants. However, it is also planned to allow any employer to ask anyone applying for a job to produce a "criminal conviction certificate" from the CRA. "This means that employers will receive an enormous amount of information about past offences, most of which will have no relevance to the job for which the person is applying," says Helen Edwards. "There is a real risk that employers will refuse to employ anyone with a criminal record. If ex-offenders find it significantly harder to find jobs, this will increase the likelihood of re-offending."

Research carried out for the Home Office by Professor Tim Newburn, a criminologist at Goldsmiths College, University of London, found that the majority of those leaving prison have no job to go to and are dependent on the benefits system - the discharge grant each receives is often inadequate to finance the period between release and the first DSS payment. "Sending people back out into the community where they are immediately in financial difficulties is an incentive for a return to crime," he notes.

Nacro is running a campaign, "Going Straight to Work", which aims to persuade employers to consider ex-offenders on their merits and to eliminate unfair discrimination in recruitment practices. "Most ex-offenders want to work and can work," says Nacro's Helen Edwards. "All the evidence shows that unemployed ex-offenders are much more likely to fall back into crime than those who find a job."