Angela Cairns: Unnecessary criminal record checks are a barrier to inclusive recruitment

The charity sector is facing a recruitment crisis and below, Angela Cairns, CEO of Unlock, argues that it’s missing out on a whole host of recruits due to unnecessary, and often unlawful, criminal record checks.

In charity circles, the challenges of recruiting to vacant posts have become a frequent topic of conversation. There’s talk of a recruitment crisis and the ‘great resignation’. And since joining Unlock in 2021, I’ve become obsessed with looking at job adverts. Not because I’m unhappy in my role, far from it, I love my job. But because I’ve become aware of a trend for employers to ask for unnecessary and often unlawful criminal record checks for applicants.

I’m Chief executive at Unlock, a national charity supporting and advocating for people with criminal records to be able to move on positively with their lives. It’s perhaps not a surprise that criminal record checks, or Disclosure and Barring Service checks, are something we hear a lot about from people calling our helpline or accessing our online advice services. Nearly 12 million people in the UK have a criminal record, so this is far from a problem affecting a tiny proportion of the population. And an over reliance on criminal record checks, frequently seen in the not-for-profit sector, is a huge barrier to inclusive recruitment and diversifying our workplaces. It also prevents people from moving on with their lives and fulfilling their potential.

This overuse of criminal record checks is frequently seen in charities in England and Wales for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the rules and requirements for disclosure of criminal records are complex and confusing. It’s easy for employers to unwittingly pick the wrong level of check to do. Secondly, because getting a disclosure and barring service check has become closely associated with safeguarding.

Safeguarding is vital, charities must have robust policies and practices – there's absolutely no argument about this. There are jobs which require standard or enhanced disclosure and barring service checks – these relate to security, finance and regulated roles working or volunteering with children and vulnerable adults. But what we find at Unlock is that there’s a raft of charities believing they are doing the very best they can in terms of safeguarding, by asking for a higher-level criminal records check (known as standard or enhanced) when it’s not warranted or lawful. Safeguarding is never just a background check, rather a series of ongoing measures we can use to keep people safe as we go about our business. Relying on enhanced criminal records checks can lead organisations to think they’ve ‘done’ safeguarding. But anyone can abuse their position, anyone can commit a crime, whether or not they have a past conviction.

I get it, I do, because until I began working for criminal justice charities, I too subscribed to the belief that safeguarding required the highest-level checks for anyone working or volunteering for a charity. But let’s look at an example:

Shelly, who had one past conviction resulting from an altercation with a neighbour, applied for a job working for a large charitable organisation at their rare breeds centre. The job involved feeding and cleaning goats, sheep, pigs and chickens. The organisation applied for an enhanced DBS check stating that Shelly would be employed as a ‘care worker’. When she raised her concerns about the level of check being carried out, Shelly was told “our safeguarding team at our HQ in London will not allow us to have staff on site without an enhanced DBS in place”. Clearly blanket policies like this are disproportionate, and can result in qualified individuals being written off because of one mistake in their past – unrelated to the job they are applying for.

There is also an equality and diversity element to all this. Our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts people from racialised communities, as a result they are also more likely to face discrimination because of a criminal record. Further, people with convictions are often discouraged from even applying for jobs in the first place if they know they will have to disclose and explain their past yet again. The irony is that often, people who have a criminal record as a result of a traumatic or troubled past are motivated to ‘give back’ or help prevent others from going down the same path. This lived experience can be invaluable to organisations working with disadvantaged young people, for example.

As charities, we can’t afford to ignore the diverse talent pool of the 12 million people with a criminal record. I urge people to consider the value of a person’s skills, education, abilities and experiences – in short, their suitability for the role – before asking about their past.

And I ask you as charity leaders, recruiters and colleagues to
• Include people with criminal records as part of diversity and inclusion initiatives
• Consider whether you need that criminal record check for the role you’re about to advertise
• See the person first – they may well be your next superstar fundraiser, support worker or CEO.

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