Job checks `risk' for offenders

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Up to five million offenders - past and present - may find themselves seriously hampered in the search for a job as a result of government proposals to give employers access to criminal records, penal reformers said yesterday.

Their fears of ex-offenders being excluded from society were expressed as the government published its white paper, On the Record, which sets out plans for three levels of criminal record inquiry on job applicants. They will be carried out by an independent Criminal Records Agency, with access to "Phoenix" the police national computer, and a set fee would be charged for each check.

Officials suggest the charge would be less than pounds 20 and in most cases will have to be paid for by the job seeker, not the employer.

Under the proposals, any employer can ask a job seeker to provide - at the applicant's own expense - a "criminal conviction certificate" detailing all current convictions, but it will not list spent convictions or cautions.

In more sensitive areas, for example teaching and health care, employers will have access to a full check which will include spent convictions and cautions.

At the highest "enhanced" check level, employers will be able to check up not only on criminal records, but on other information known to police - including the applicant's known associates, decisions not to prosecute and even acquittals "where the circumstances give cause for concern" for child protection purposes and for those applying for gaming, betting and lottery licences.

But many working in the justice system said the moves will breach job seekers' privacy, further jeopardise the already difficult task ex-offenders have in seeking work, and lead to more re-offending.

Only last week, a Home Office study concluded the most effective way of rehabilitating offenders was to find them work and said that government departments and agencies needed to "develop a more collaborative and strategic approach to the problems of offender unemployment".

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers said: "Ministers appear to be saying they cannot support initiatives which will result in ex-offenders finding work at the expense of the law abiding unemployed."

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said: "The planned legislation would give employers an enormous amount of information about past offences with no relevance to the job for which someone is applying. This will increase the risk that ex-offenders will be unfairly excluded from jobs because of old and irrelevant convictions."

But yesterday, announcing the plans in the Commons as part of his "law and order" week, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said: "We need a more accessible and open system of pre-employment checks to meet the needs of employers who place people in positions of trust."