HC Deb 09 April 1976 vol 909 cc873-81

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)

For a long time the problem of rehabilitation of offenders and the difficulties they experience in finding employment has taxed the minds of such bodies as Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the National Association of Probation Officers. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 has done something to meet the situation, but it falls short in that an ex-offender who has served a sentence of more than 30 months is excluded and his record lives with him for all time. Nor does the Act do anything for those who need a job on release from prison.

The latter point is basic to the whole situation, for without useful employment there is almost the certainty of a return to crime. Most employers are unwilling to engage an ex-offender. Researches by the Apex Trust, which aims to secure work for such people, have found that only 10 per cent, of all employers are willing to take them on, although a high percentage of the adult population have been charged with some kind of crime during their lifetime.

The result is that, faced with the position that he will not get a job if he discloses his past, the ex-offender will conceal his convictions and in so doing secures employment but lives in fear that he might be discovered. The National Association of Probation Officers has for some time been particularly concerned about the difficulties facing ex-offenders in finding employment in the public services. Quite a number of cases have been forthcoming, and are on the Association's files.

I was particularly interested in two cases about which I was informed this morning. The Association told me. 1. A man who had worked for the British Steel Corporation with a good record was sent to prison. On release he applied to be taken on again but was told that his record disqualified him. The local manager made it clear to the probation officer that he had no intention of employing men with criminal records. 2. A man who had worked for London Transport was off work for some time with an injury and then committed offences of theft. When he re-applied he was turned down on the basis that ' bad reports had been received about him ' The Association has not usually encountered blank refusal by such bodies to employ people with convictions. The normal position is similar to that taken by the Post Office. In a letter to NAPO dated 5th April 1975 it said: A conviction does not necessarily debar an applicant from employment in the Post Office, although as a service to which the public entrusts its private communications and frequently money, we must of course employ people of honesty and integrity in positions of trust or financial responsibility. Each ex-offender who applies to work for us is therefore treated on his merits, bearing in mind the nature of his offence, his age at the time and the period that has elapsed since its occurrence in relation to the particular job applied for. In practice, the experience of probation officers is that many public authorities, including British Rail and the Post Office, provide very little leeway indeed. This brings me to the case of my constituent, Mr. Geoffrey Torr, of Wellesley Road, Ilford.

In March 1974 Mr. Torr completed an application form for British Rail as a guard, through the good offices of the local employment exchange. In spile of the fact that he had served prison sentences, one of three years, his answer to the question whether he had any convictions was in the negative. Subsequently, Mr. Torr started work as a guard, and, according to all the evidence, there were no complaints during the whole time he served the undertaking. Indeed, he made himself much better at his job so that the situation might never arise whereby his past would be probed.

After serving 14 months he was challenged by the British Transport Police concerning a false return in his application form. He had no choice but to admit his faults. When asked to resign on the undertaking that no further action would be taken against him, Mr. Torr refused. He returned to work for a further 10 weeks. On 10th July 1975 he was arrested by British Transport Police and charged, following which he was suspended.

On 6th August 1975 my constituent appeared before the Stratford Magistrates' Court charged with an offence arising from the concealment of a criminal record. The specific charge was obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception through making a false statement to the effect that he had no criminal record on a job application form for British Rail. The pecuniary advantage, I might say, was that which he obtained as his wages, which seems a little odd on all counts.

At the trial the evidence to which I have referred showed that during his employment Mr. Torr had charge of valuable goods and mail The depot manager at Ilford said that Mr. Torr was an exemplary employee with all the virtues attached to that title—honesty, loyalty and hard work. At no time was there any suggestion that he had used his position in a dishonest way even though he had charge of valuable goods and mail as a guard.

Another witness at the hearing was Mr. Graham Melville, Chairman of Recidivists Anonymous, an organisation which receives a Home Office grant and which exists to help ex-prisoners to go straight. Mr. Torr was a founder member of Recidivists Anonymous and he had known him for some 16 years. Never had Mr. Melville known a man who showed such effort to rehabilitate himself and play a full part in society.

From all the evidence there seems to be little doubt that my constituent was one who had jettisoned a criminal past and was clearly one who could be admitted to society with all its commitments and rewards, the right to work not being the least. This was the impression that I formed when he came to see me a short time after the trial to seek my help.

It is interesting to note that while the magistrate agreed that the case was properly brought, the sentence given was of one year's conditional discharge, about the lowest possible. Another interesting point was that the magistrate paid regard to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which had been in force for just over a month. When the British Transport Police offered to read out the list of Mr. Torr's convictions, the magistrate said that it was near enough to the borderline of the Act and he did not require the list to be read out.

Following my first meeting with Mr. Torr, I wrote to the Chairman of British Rail asking that, in view of the circumstances, a review of the case might be made and a conclusion reached which would be of mutual benefit to my constituent and to British Rail. About a month later I had a reply from Mr. Bosworth on behalf of the Chairman, stating that the appeal for reinstatement would be dealt with in accordance with the procedure agreed with the trade unions.

In the event his claim, backed by his trade union, was dismissed, but Mr. Torr was told that he could re-apply if he submitted the application form complete with a list of convictions. This he did and was offered a railwayman's job. Mr. Torr then withdrew his application and applied to an industrial tribunal on the ground that his dismissal amounted to victimisation. For him the matter was now one of principle.

Mr. Torr told the tribunal the reason for not disclosing his record. Nevertheless, his case was dismissed. The chairman. Sir John Clayden, concluded: We recognise the mistaken and guiding reason which led Mr. Torr to set himself up as an example to the organisation he helped found. But he brought himself to a position where the only reasonable thing for British Rail to do was to decide he could not be retained as a guard. Mr. Torr is not an embittered man, but in the certain knowledge of his own rehabilitation he is prepared to pursue the matter to the end, which, even though it results in personal failure, might have the effect of further thought being given to the subject.

The report of the committee set up by Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Associaion for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, under the chairmanship of Lord Gardiner, made certain recommendations on the question of rehabilitation periods. These were intended to provide equity as between different offenders according to the nature of their sentences.

The recommendations of the committee were adequately met by the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but they still fall short in dealing with such cases as that of my constituent Mr. Torr. The problem of the long-term ex-prisoner is dealt with in the Gardiner Report, and the conclusion was that, for various reasons, it would not be advisable to wipe the slate clean in all cases.

This would apply to authorised disclosures to the police, to the Gaming Board, to the Department of Health and Social Security—as in the case of people applying for licences to run child care establishments—and to the Department of Education and Science in regard to schoolmasters with a previous record of offences against children. It would apply also to certain jobs in the Civil Service in respect of which it would be necessary, in the interests of national security, to know past records.

I was, however, attracted by the conclusions reached in the report dealing with the difficulties of ex-offenders in securing employment, saying that these are improved not by denying an employer the right to scrutinise the qualities of prospective employees but by educating employers to adopt a more imaginative approach to the employment of ex-offenders and social workers fully to encourage ex-offenders fully and fairly to discuss their past with employers.

In short, without throwing caution to the winds, there must be an element of trust and confidence between the parties concerned, and I suggest that public corporations and nationalised industries should set an example. To this end, I urge the Home Seceretary to use his good offices and agree to a suggestion made by the National Association of Probation Officers, that is, to encourage negotiations under the auspices of his Department, involving the nationalised industries, public authorities, trade unions and interested groups such as the APEX Trust, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the National Association of Probation Officers.

In the meantime—I know that this is not a matter for my hon. Friend at present on the Front Bench—let me appeal to British Rail to give further consideration to the possibility of reinstating Mr. Torr.

3.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw) has raised an issue of general importance which is exemplified in particular by the case of his constituent Mr. Torr. But my Department comes into the matter in only part of the general question because we were responsible for the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and we have some responsibility in relation to the probation service and its help to ex-offenders, as well as for the subsidies which we give to organisations such as The New Bridge and Apex Trust which seek to help offenders who are trying to find employment.

Other Departments also are involved. The Department of Employment has a constant interest in the difficulties which ex-offenders have in obtaining work, and to some extent the Department of the Environment is involved, especially in such a case as that which causes my hon. Friend concern, in relation to the administration of some of the nationalised industries.

I share the feelings which my hon. Friend has about the case to which he has drawn attention. Indeed, when I first saw it in the newspapers in August I raised the matter with the Department of the Environment, which in turn wrote to the British Railways Board.

I am bound to say that the letter that the Railways Board then sent back to me, via the Department of the Environment, leaves much to be desired in relation to compassion for and understanding of a man who had lived down his past. The Board was really standing upon the technicality that the particular case was outside the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and, indeed, the issue had come to light even before the Act had been passed. But the Board did not seem to have grasped the point that the Act was an indication—only a small indication, but an indication—of a changed attitude in society towards the employment of ex-offenders and that what British Railways ought now to be doing, as indeed every nationalised industry ought now to be doing, is considering their employment practices to see whether it is necessary to be quite so stringent in the attitude that they take to the employment of ex-offenders.

I do not minimise the difficulties. British Rail has a very considerable problem of pilfering on the railways, a good deal of which takes place as a result of the activities of its employees. Not unnaturally, it has to scrutinise the character of those it takes into its employment fairly stringently. On the other hand, if an employee with a previous conviction is never ever allowed to live it down, society will never be rid of the difficulties that come from his criminal activities. He must be given a chance, and if the chance is justified he must be allowed to live down his past.

That was what the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was about. The mere fact that there was a limitation of 30 months' imprisonment as the margin does not mean to say that it did not embrace a much wider principle.

Mr. Torr had lived down his past. I am bound to say, along with my hon. Friend, that if I had had anything to do with the matter the man would have been allowed to be re-employed by British Rail. The first time that I knew he was given the offer of re-employment was when my hon. Friend mentioned it a moment ago, and apparently, according to him, Mr. Torr turned it down and preferred to go to the Industrial Tribunal. That must be his decision, but it looks as though British Rail behaved rather better than I had thought. However, it took British Rail a little time to make that offer. I hope that British Rail will now pay more attention to the kind of attitude which is exemplified in the Estacode of the Civil Service in relation to the employment of ex-offenders by Government Departments.

I quote from the relevant paragraph: Conviction for a serious offence is not an automatic disqualification for employment in the Civil Service. A department may employ such a person who is otherwise suitable, provided that it seems reasonable to do so, taking into account the nature and seriousness of the offence (particularly in relation to the job for which the person is an applicant), the person's age at the time of the offence, the time that has elapsed since and the person's record during that time. A department should not, however, employ such a person in any job which affords any opportunity of repeating the offence until it is quite satisfied that the person is reliable. In 1974 the Civil Service Department completed a review of recruitment policy in relation to persons with criminal convictions. The review concluded that, while the Civil Service could not take the lead in providing more employment opportunities for people in trouble with the law, it would be right for establishment officers to be advised that they need not seek evidence of rehabilitation in the community in each case before considering an applicant for a post. This means, for example, that otherwise suitable applicants who are about to be discharged from prison are not barred from employment in the Civil Service simply because they have not been able to demonstrate their trustworthiness over a period in society.

Every applicant for a Civil Service post is required to state whether he has ever been convicted. That has been amended to some extent by the effect of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. If an offence is admitted, the case is considered on its merits. If it is subsequently discovered that a false entry is made, it does not follow that the man would automatically be refused employment, or discharged if already employed, but a false entry would be regarded as a relevant factor in assessing the man's integrity.

I stress that that is the directive given to the Civil Service. The general policy directives of nationalised industries are understood to be broadly in line with those of the Civil Service, but recruitment to many posts tends to be a local matter. In practice, therefore, the attitudes and sympathies of the person responsible for filling a vacancy may be reflected in the selection process. That is the real difficulty.

The policy laid down by the Civil Service and operated, in theory at any rate, by the public bodies is unexceptionable. We all accept that there cannot be blanket acceptance of every ex-offender for every kind of job. There must be some selection. On the other hand, this selection is carried out by people at a relatively low level of judgment and experience, and it may be that there is something to be said for the nationalised bodies giving much firmer directives to that level of lower management. I shall follow up my hon. Friend's suggestion that my Department may be able to encourage at least public bodies to take that kind of initiative. I hope that we might be able to extend that process to the CBI, possibly embracing some consultation with the trade unions.

I stress that there is no principle capable of being applied without exception. There must be the odd case that raises serious doubts about the trustworthiness of an ex-offender, but there must also be a time when ex-offenders have the right to live down their past.

My hon. Friend raised some specific criticism about the width of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. I hope he will recognise, as initially Apex Trust did not, that the Act was a considerable step forward in seeking to wash away an ex-offender's past. We took the step of saying that anybody convicted of an offence which attracted a sentence of less than 30 months would at some stage earn the right to have that forgotten by society, except in the most exceptional circumstances.

That was a considerable step to take, and it was taken with opposition from some of the quarters involved. In those circumstances I do not believe that I can as yet contemplate extending the parameters of the Act. As I said when we discussed the legislation in the House, however, I have never accepted that that would be the final stage of absolution for an ex-offender. I have always thought that the time would come when we should extend the period of imprisonment caught by the Act and also limit the number of exceptions—of which, I am afraid, far too many were written in by the subsequent statutory Regulations.

We shall have the Act on the statute book as a constant goad to us in future to improve the legislative protection for ex-offenders, but I do not believe——

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.