Vicky Pryce: Ex-offenders deserve level playing field

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Economist Vicky Pryce speaks to Arvind Hickman about why jobseekers with criminal records deserve an equal chance, and the value to business and society of providing employment to ex-offenders.

Economist and Prisonomics author Vicky Pryce, who spent two months in prison for taking former husband and cabinet minister Chris Huhne’s motoring penalty points, is a strong advocate of providing employment opportunities to those with a criminal record.

Vicky Pryce is an advocate for Business In The Community’s Ban the Box campaign, which promotes a level playing field for jobseekers with criminal records by urging organisations to remove criminal check boxes when recruiting. Launched in October 2013, the Ban the Box campaign has the backing of 15 organisations and shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

HR magazine caught up with Pryce recently at the BITC's Responsible Business Week in London.

HR: What is the basis for society’s negative perception of people who go to prison?

VP: Newspapers and commentators tend to sensationalise criminals. TV programmes have murders and people behaving badly, but this is at odds with the statistics.

Most people who go to jail are incarcerated for very trivial offences. It could be shoplifting, but it could also be non-payment of TV licence, or because your children are truant from school. It could be because you are in a serious financial situation or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or you fall under the spell of someone you are with.

You could get put in jail for something that is not a threat to society. Many of the people who get caught have serious problems already and are falling into crime from a vulnerable position. That’s not the perception you get when you hear about criminals.

HR: What changed your perception of prisoners?

VP: The first thing is the realisation that a large number of people who are labelled ‘criminals’ are like the rest of us. By accident, or momentary mistake, they’ve found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Many people are being imprisoned for offences that perhaps can be dealt with differently. We have doubled the number of people in prisons over the past 20 years, when crime has been coming down consistently. We end up with people being criminalised when 20 years ago they wouldn’t be.

Criminologists think only three out of 100 offences that are committed end up in court, and a small number of those end up with a conviction. It means there are many people  who don’t get caught.

The second thing is that rehabilitation is so important and people are desperate to get back to working and earning, otherwise they will fall back on the state and reoffend.

The third thing is you can see very clearly what impact getting a job has in terms of their attitude to their lives, wellbeing and also the dedication to achieving really good results. [Prisoners would] get up at ridiculous hours in the morning, get on public transport and be in London early morning, and then come back again. That’s a gruelling commitment.

If people can do that day in and day out, and still contribute to your business, that’s exactly what you want in an employee.

HR: The aim of Ban the Box is to reduce discrimination that prevents ex-offenders from getting work. How suitable are ex-offenders for work?

VP: The vast majority of people who commit offences are suitable for work. For example, if you had a woman who was trying to feed a drug habit by shoplifting but is out of it now, that’s not detrimental to any white-collar business, as long as you are satisfied this person is not still under the influence.

My point for employers is that people with serious mental problems – and you have to remember that many people who go to prison have been abused – are probably not in a fit state to immediately ask for a job. But those who are fit for work are like everyone else, and in fact can even be better because they need to work otherwise they are homeless and won’t be able to look after their children.

They often have great attributes: they work harder and employers say they are less likely to leave, so it costs less in lost training and recruitment money. They are more punctual. They give really good value for money.

HR: Can you understand why some employers would be apprehensive of hiring ex-offenders, particularly in some sectors such as care and education?

VP: There’s always an issue on the types of people who might apply. I know firms who would never hire a sex offender and they need to know that offence. But how many sex offenders are there who are going to be applying for jobs? You can imagine there is a limited number.

What you also don’t know is there could be sex offenders who already work for you. The sex offenders who were caught were not (in a legal sense) sex offenders before. So you don’t really know what is going on in your organisation at any one point in time. You can’t completely insulate yourself against people behaving badly.

It is at least worth getting to a point where you can see what skills people have and then have an outright ban on some offences when you find out what they are. It may mean that, out of 1,000 people you see, two are unsuitable but are caught by checks later on in the process. That’s a small price to pay to give others the chance. There are some sectors where, depending on what your offence was, those positions will be closed to you, so you wouldn’t apply. There is a lot of self-selection, and charities such as Working Chance, which advises people on what jobs they should go for, do the first scrutiny.

HR: If you were an employer, would you hire some of the people you met in prison?

VP: Through Working Chance, I hired a woman who spent six months in Holloway Prison as my PA. I trusted her completely; she was the best whizz-kid of IT I have ever come across and worked with me for a few months. 

She now has another job – all she needed was a bit of confidence, to be sure of herself and say, ‘Yes, I can do this’. She was just as good as the people I had before, very flexible and put in 100% effort in making sure I was happy with her. I would employ a number of people I’ve met [in prison].

HR: What message would you send to HRDs?

VP: If you are not doing it already, put your toe into the water, experiment and talk to other employers to find out why they are employing ex-offenders and giving them a chance. Also think about what you are giving back as an employer to your communities; it’s probably one of the best things you could do: employ people who really want to work and give their all to your company.

The more you allow people to rehabilitate themselves, and the more you ensure they have jobs, the less likely they are to reoffend. There is no doubt that having a job is the surest way to not reoffend.

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