Council sacks a woman with a criminal record that is nearly two decades old because they say she is a substantial risk to their reputation — what are the implications?

A newly qualified social worker has been dismissed from her job after the council suggested their reputation could be damaged because of her spent conviction from almost twenty years ago.

When she applied for the job at East Sussex County Council, Lisa was open about her criminal conviction on a drugs related charge. But during her probationary period, she was dismissed. The council said it took the decision because of the publicity surrounding her case; newspaper reports about her original conviction can be found — with some effort — online and it seems colleagues of hers discovered these.

Jailed in Jamaica in 2000 for trafficking cocaine, in Lisa’s words she was “groomed” by an older man. Nearly two decades on from the offence, it led to her dismissal from her new role as a social worker in children’s services at East Sussex County Council because of concerns that service users might use her conviction against her.

In a statement to BBC South East, the council said: “We were aware of Lisa’s previous convictions, but were not aware that she had grown up in the area or that details of her conviction were in the public domain. Not only would this represent a substantial risk to the reputation of the service and the council, but it would make it extremely difficult for Lisa to carry out her work effectively.”

Huw Merriman MP, the local Conservative MP for Bexhill & Battle, who appeared on BBC South East Today on Monday (17th) said “Where there are issues involving safeguarding then of course that’s fair enough, but my concern is that there are a number of employers that look at things from a reputational perspective and that saddens me because reputationally it should be seen as a public good that employers are investing the time in helping people to build their lives.”

In a letter, Becky Shaw, Chief Executive of East Sussex County Council, said “I would like to acknowledge the significant personal achievements of [Lisa] in obtaining a professional social work qualification, particularly given the background and circumstances of her position.” This rings hollow since, in the same letter, she went on to uphold the decision to dismiss Lisa.

The council had admitted some of its failings. Celia Lamden, head of service for health visiting and children’s centres and the chairman of Lisa’s dismissal hearing, told Lisa that, during her recruitment process, “more consideration should have been given to the information that was made available to us”. This referred to a Fitness to Practice report Lisa supplied the council when she applied for the role but had never been requested by the council.

This case raises some important issues:

  1. Is it right that employers should still be provided with details of a conviction that is nearly two-decades old?
  2. Is it right that news articles detailing spent convictions remain online?
  3. Is it right that employers should use their reputation as a reason for refusing employment?
  4. Is the council right to assume that service users would use Lisa’s past against her?
  5. Having qualified as a social worker, what are Lisa’s chances of finding employment?
  6. What can be done to stop situations like this happening in the future?

For me, there’s four aspects in particular:

  1. We need to seriously look at what information comes back on criminal record checks. Research we published in May this year shows Lisa is not alone in having old information come back on checks. This system is in desperate need of reform.
  2. East Sussex County Council have not clearly explained how Lisa’s criminal record makes her unsuitable. In fact, there is a strong argument to suggest that it makes her more suitable because of the type of work she’d be doing. Yet as it stands, employers are not made to justify why a criminal record makes someone unsuitable before refusing them an opportunity.
  3. The council’s recruitment process has been shown wanting. Regardless of the decision, the council should review their approach. Consideration of Lisa’s conviction was not managed well and the decision shows a lack of internal challenge to assumptions about reputational harm. Lots of employers proactively recruit people with convictions and report a positive effect on their reputation.
  4. There is no clear process for ensuring spent convictions are removed from online searches. The council’s key concern was that people could find out about Lisa’s convictions through old news stories. This shows why challenging the so-called ‘google-effect’ is so important, and news we posted yesterday about the legal cases that have been supporting should give hope Lisa and others like her that, in future they will be able to prevent people circumventing the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and finding out about their spent convictions by simply googling their name.

Update, 22nd December: Since I first published this blog on Friday 21st December, a more detailed article has been published by the Bexhill Observer. This provides more details about the case, both in terms of Lisa’s original conviction and the recruitment process of East Sussex County Council. Lisa has also since explained to me that she disclosed her conviction during the application process but the council only requested more information when they suspended her pending the hearing where she was dismissed.

Written by Christopher Stacey, Co-director of Unlock

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