A legislative change that seems to have slipped into law with no great fanfare this month revisits the spent convictions regime. On 10 March the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was amended to reduce the time that must pass before ex-offenders can claim to have a clean record. The Act provides that certain convictions will become “spent” if the individual does not reoffend during a specified ‘rehabilitation period’.  Where an offence is “spent” the ex-offender will be treated as though he never committed it, and he is consequently not obliged to inform prospective employers of it, even if asked a direct question on the point.

A conviction will never become spent if the person is sentenced to a custodial sentence of over four years or a public protection sentence for certain sexual and violent crimes. Custodial sentences of 2½ – 4 years, which prior to the changes would never have become spent, will now be so after 7 years from the date the sentence is completed. The reforms reduce the rehabilitation periods for all other custodial sentences and also lower the rehabilitation period for those sentenced only to a fine from 5 years to one year. The Act also provides that there will be no rehabilitation period for individuals who received an absolute discharge, meaning that such a conviction need never be disclosed in normal circumstances.

It is estimated that as result of this latest reform up to 1.5 million people will no longer have to declare their convictions when applying for most jobs.  But what does this really mean for UK employers? An increased chance of unwittingly recruiting a former offender, or the opportunity to recruit individuals whom an employer might have previously excluded due to a misdemeanour from their past?  Probably both.

Legally the position remains the same as before. It is unlawful to reject someone for a job because he has a spent conviction. However, if the role requires a criminal record check and this reveals the applicant is unsuitable for the job due to a spent conviction the employer may remove the job offer. Roles falling within this category include medics, lawyers, person working with children and jobs involving the protection of national security.

A leading advocate of recruiting ex-offenders is Richard Branson, who has actively encouraged his colleagues at Virgin to adopt this approach, whilst also recognising that restorative recruitment isn’t a viable option for every role. This sentiment has been echoed by Nick Clegg, who says quite sensibly that “making a mistake and committing a minor crime when you are fifteen shouldn’t mean you are barred from employment for the rest of your life”. Working Chance is a leading charity that specialises in the restorative recruitment of female ex-offenders. The organisation has successfully placed candidates with companies including Pret A Manger, Sainsbury’s and Virgin. Its success is evident from statistics; of the 173 women employed their reoffending rate was less than 5% whereas of adults released from prison generally around two thirds are reconvicted within two years of release from prison.

Many leading business persons have had brushes with the law, Duncan Bannatyne and Jay-Z to name a couple, and they have clearly gone on to achieve great success. The rehabilitation of ex-offenders and their potential contribution to society are topics that divide public opinion and will undoubtedly continue to do so. However in a society where our prison system is at least notionally founded on the notion of rehabilitation, this reform is in line with the aim of ex-offenders re-joining the working world and getting their lives back on track. The Government is clearly hopeful that improving their employment prospects will provide a boost to the UK workforce and allow affected individuals to move on with their lives more quickly.

Further information and the government press release is available here:https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-to-help-reduce-reoffending-come-into-force