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Job centre advisors – make sure you understand the problems facing ex-offenders

delivery-van-clipart-delivery_a05In October 2015 I found myself sitting in front of a job centre adviser desperate for her to help me find a job so that I’d have some money to buy my kids some Christmas presents and to put that all important turkey on the table.

I didn’t care what I did. I hadn’t been out of prison that long so I couldn’t afford to be choosy.

If I’m honest, my experience of the job centre up until then hadn’t been great. On the day I first went to sign on I thought it would be best to be honest about my criminal record but, as soon as I started explaining them, the advisers attitude towards me totally changed. Gone was the happy, helpful lady of five minutes ago, chatting about the weather and her holiday. Now she was ‘looking down her nose’ at me, hurrying me along, desperate to get rid of me.

I’ve got a couple of convictions for fraud. Nothing to be proud of and I’ve got no excuse for breaking the law. But I’m a decent bloke; certainly not violent or dangerous.

Still, I tried not to let the advisers attitude bother me and I always turned up for my appointment with a smile on my face, ready and willing to ‘engage’.

So on this particular morning the adviser told me:

“You’ve come at the right time. Royal Mail is just starting to recruit for Christmas staff. You can apply online.”

Sounds great especially if like me, your name’s Pat! Sadly though not a job for me. I’d tried applying for a similar role immediately after I got released from prison only to be told that the Royal Mail have a blanket ban on recruiting anybody with an unspent conviction for fraud (and a whole range of other offences as well).

As I was explaining this to the adviser, she started tutting and the look on her face told me that she thought I was making excuses. I really wasn’t. It didn’t stop her saying:

“If you don’t apply, you run the risk of being sanctioned”

So, I tried to apply but could only get so far on the application form before it told me I was unsuitable. As expected, when I told the job centre that I hadn’t been able to apply, I was sanctioned.

Why is it that these people who are meant to be there to help you, actually offer no help? Mainly because they don’t have a clue about how to help somebody who has a criminal record.

I would probably have had good grounds to appeal the sanction but decided that dealing with the job centre was just causing me additional problems and stress. The adviser I was dealing with was no help and I wasn’t confident that another would be any better. Added to which, I felt that if I asked to change advisers I would just be labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’.

As I sat at home trawling the internet, I came across Unlock. I wasn’t sure what they did but thought I’d give them a call. After I’d finished telling the guy on the phone my story, he agreed that I’d have had no chance of a job with Royal Mail with an unspent conviction (it’s a well-known fact apparently) but told me to have a look at Unlock’s list of friendly employers.

I hadn’t heard of a lot of the companies on the list but followed some of the links and came across a company looking for a delivery driver. I had the skills and experience and clicked onto their online application form. One of the questions asked if I had a ‘police record’ but even when I selected ‘yes’ it still allowed me to continue to the end of the form. A week later I was invited to attend an interview and two days after that I started work.

A year on, I’m loving my job. I’m pretty much my own boss when I’m out and about in my van. The company know about my conviction – they employ many people like me but they don’t make a big deal about it. They’ve been on the Sunday Times Best Employer List since 2012 and their office is really close to the job centre. So I find it even more extraordinary that an expert at the job centre didn’t point this company out to me at my very first visit.

My experiences with the job centre have been pretty bad and I’m sure there are some good advisers around. I really believe that all job centre staff need to be trained in how to deal with ex-offenders and have a much better understanding of the problems that are very specific to them.

The only thing that helped me get my job was my own motivation and, of course, a little help from Unlock!


By Pat (name changed to protect identity)


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Regulated by the FCA on a life licence

Since about 10 years ago, I have been employed full time by a nationally recognized registered Charity, as a Specialist Debt Caseworker. About a year before I started, I was released from prison on license after serving 22 years of a life sentence for murder. I remain on license of course and my conviction will never be spent.

My role as a Debt Caseworker is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. This is a legal requirement of my employer and it is their responsibility to ensure that those they employ meet the required professional standards to fulfill their role which serves the best interests of our clients. My role includes working with vulnerable people, occasionally visiting people in their homes and taking responsibility on occasion for cash sums held in trust on behalf of clients to pay for their fees connects to particular insolvency procedures such as bankruptcy. It also involves liaising with partner agencies, particularly representatives of the Local Authority and negotiating with creditors regarding my clients’ finances.

My role also entails me representing clients in the County Court before District Judges, arguing before the Court why it should consider suspending Possession action on client’s property or suspending the execution of a Warrant of eviction due to mortgage or rent arrears.

My employer is fully aware of my background as I was required to disclose it at interview. I have been assured since that I was offered the role on merit, having been able to demonstrate to the interview panel a history of volunteering during the latter stages of my imprisonment and the first year of my freedom, as well as being able to persuade the panel that my years in prison had given me the time to reflect on my life, the course it had taken and the steps I’d taken to turn my life around.

As part of the recruitment process a CRB was requested which was sent centrally to the charity for whom I work. It revealed not just the murder but also a history of petty offending throughout my adolescence. The charity centrally sought assurances from my specific employer that I had disclosed but the final decision to employ me was left at the discretion of my employer.

By Philip* (name & details changed to protect identity)

Second Hand – Giving somebody a second chance

Having developed a new hobby of ‘upcycling furniture’ I’d wandered into my local charity shop having seen a fantastic pine chest of drawers in the window, ideal for customising for my spare bedroom.  Fantastic, lovely heavy piece of furniture, no damage, no woodworm – it’s mine.

As I handed over my £25 the gentleman who served me started chatting to me – ‘That’s a nice old bit of furniture, they don’t make stuff like that anymore.  Once it’s been sanded down to take all that old varnish off it will come up a treat’.

It was only as I was about to say goodbye that it suddenly dawned on me that I’d parked my car at my office, a fifteen minute walk away and there were double yellow lines outside the shop, stretching for about a mile.  I explained the situation to the sales assistant who told me that the charity shop had a car park at the back of the shop and I could bring my car around and park it in there.  Alternatively, parking restrictions outside the shop were lifted after 5.30pm and so I could come back then.  I told him that I had to get back to the office to see a client but I’d be back at around 5.30ish.  He told me that although he usually finished at 5pm, he’d wait around and give me a hand carrying the chest out to my car.

As promised, back I went that evening.  As he carried the chest to the car and I attempted to clear the boot to accommodate my new bit of furniture we got chatting.  I told him that I’d opened my own ‘letting agency’ about a year ago and that the business had really started to take off over the last 6 months.  I asked him about his work at the charity shop.  He seemed so much younger than all the other people working in there and was the only male.  I must say, I was intrigued by this young man (who I later found out was called Nigel).

He told me that he’d been volunteering in the charity shop for about 15 months, originally it was because he had to and now because he wanted to.  He’d received a conviction for ‘fraud’ and been given a prison sentence but just before release, he was able to go out on a ‘temporary licence’ and volunteer in the charity shop.  He’d volunteered for the last 6 months of his sentence and when he was released, he’d continued to volunteer.  He told me that ‘his ladies’ in the shop really looked after him and as he didn’t have a job and had few prospects, there was nothing stopping him continuing to volunteer.

‘Where you working before your conviction?’ I asked.  ‘Oh yes’ he said ‘Would you believe it, I was a Business Manager for a large corporate organisation.  I earned good money, had a wife and child, lovely house and drove a nice car and I was a stupid ******.  I had a new secretary at work, she was young, pretty and made me feel important.  At the time my wife had just had the baby and I really seemed to have dropped down the pecking order.  I couldn’t believe this young girl was interested in me and I became totally infatuated.  I wanted to impress her, buy her nice things and take her to nice places.  To fund this, I started to ‘borrow’ money from my employers. 

The inevitable happened – my wife found out and left me.  I took time off work with depression and then the company’s auditors found out about the money.  I was sacked and ultimately charged with fraud.  What a mess, still it could be worse.  Although my wife and I are divorced now, she has started to let me see my son.  All I want now is to get back into work so that I can help support my child and hopefully rent a flat so that he can come and stay with me at weekends – I’m staying with mates at the moment so he can’t do that.

Wow.  I’ve got to say I was truly shocked.  I’d never met a ‘proper criminal’ before although I’d read plenty of newspaper stories about ‘convicts’.  I’d always wondered what gave these people the right to just take what didn’t belong to them when I had to work so hard for everything I had.  I’d read about people in prison having TV’s and Play stations and it certainly didn’t sound to me like they were being punished.

Nigel was a real person though – stupid he may have been but I remember when I gave birth to my daughter.  If I’m honest, for a while she did become the focus of my whole world – perhaps my husband had felt neglected to.  Did a TV and a Playstation make up for being separated from your child – definitely not.  He’d been punished, why couldn’t he just start again.  His wife seemed to have forgiven him, couldn’t society do the same.  This guy’s talent was being wasted, I’m sure he’d be an asset to somebody.

Lightbulb moment!!!!!!  He’d be an asset to me.  I’d been looking for ages for somebody to help with the administration of my business.  I’d placed an advert with the job centre but to be honest the people they sent really didn’t seem that interested in working.  I’d put an advert in my local supermarket but hadn’t had one response.  Would it be too much of a risk taking on a ‘fraudster’.  What if he did the same to my business?  How could I protect myself?  What would the other staff say?  My head was spinning.  ‘I’m looking for an administrator’ I said ‘Would you be interested in coming along for an interview next week?’ 

The interview went well.  Nigel was skilled, knowledgeable and totally motivated.  He already had some ideas for better utilisation of the systems we had in place.  I wanted to offer him a job but when I spoke to friends and family they all told me to avoid him like the plague.  ‘The business is too new, you just can’t afford to take the risk’ my husband told me.  But I knew I wanted to give this guy a second chance and all I needed was somebody to tell me that I was doing the right thing.

I came across Unlock doing a Google search and decided to give them a ring.  I knew they helped people with convictions but would they be able to help me.  ‘They’ll just tell you to employ the bloke’ my husband said ‘You can tell they’ll be on his side’.  I explained my dilemma to the Unlock Helpline.  They talked through the job and Nigel’s convictions.  As my husband said, they were all for me giving Nigel a second chance but they also helped me to more practically assess any risks so that by the end of the conversation I knew that I’d be offering Nigel a job but I also knew that I’d done everything that I could to protect my business.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made.  Nigel’s been with me a while now and has transformed the organisational side of the business.  In lots of ways the relationship I have with him is very different from the one I have with my other staff.  Nigel is ‘an open book’; I know everything about him and trust him implicitly.  I think he truly has my company’s best interests at heart and has made my family and friends eat their words.

I know it’s easy to be judgmental and hard to take a risk but sometimes it’s worthwhile looking a little deeper and giving somebody a second chance.

By Lisa* (name changed to protect identity)

Is honesty the best policy after you’re arrested?

So far, I haven’t got a criminal record. I’ve been arrested, I’m under investigation by the police and I’m on bail.  I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, I’ve been told different things by the police and my solicitor so I’ll just have to wait and see.  As a result of my arrest, I lost my job which has had a massive impact on the family income and also on my self-confidence.

I know that the police investigation can go on for a while and I realised a little while ago that I couldn’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to me.  I needed to get some purpose back into my life, a reason to get up in the morning and more importantly – a salary.

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to find a new job in a sales office.  Not my dream job but at least I was earning and not just sitting around at home.  The working hours didn’t conflict with the time I needed to sign on for bail so it all looked good.

I’d been working there for about a week when the Managing Director approached me.  He’d seen my CV, noticed that I had a finance background and asked me if I would consider becoming his accountant .  This came as such a shock that I told him I needed to have a think about it and would let him know.

I went home, spoke with my family and decided that I could:-

  1. Say nothing and take him up on his offer
  2. Say nothing, decline his offer and continue in the job I was doing
  3. Tell him the truth

I picked the 3rd option although I knew that legally I didn’t have to say anything – after all, I haven’t been charged with anything.

Unfortunately, the next day the MD wasn’t in but one of the supervisors was and she asked me whether I had made a decision.  Well, I took the bull by the horns and told her the truth.  She looked pretty shocked, told me it was the first she had heard of this and said that as the MD wasn’t around I should go home.  She said she’d speak to him over the weekend and would give me call to let me know ‘what they were going to do with me!’

I worried about it all over the weekend and a week later I still hadn’t been contacted.  I had convinced myself that they didn’t want me back.  Although I knew that I’d done nothing wrong, I didn’t really want to work somewhere that I wasn’t wanted.  I’d tried to be honest, I’d made a stupid mistake but it seemed that honesty just didn’t pay.

Well, the following week the MD rang me.  He wanted to know lots of details about the case (it was pretty intensive stuff and I got really upset as I was explaining it to him) and he told me that ‘although it wasn’t a deal breaker for him’, he would need to seek further advice and would get back to me with his decision.

Great news – he did come back to me.  He told me that I was wasted in the sales office and that he wanted to offer me a more admin type of role.  He actually created a new job especially for me and I am absolutely loving it.  I’m so relieved that I’ve got a job without having to fear that somebody will find out or I may say the wrong thing.  I’ve certainly got a job up until my court case and, all being well, I’ll get some sort of community order which will mean that I can carry on working when all this is over.

Just goes to show, there are employers out there that are willing to give people a second chance and I’ll be doing everything I can to repay the trust that has been placed in me.

By Hannah* (name changed to protect identity)

Developing success from failure

My world came crashing down in November 2010 when I was given a 33 month prison sentence. I had never been in trouble before and the reality that I would be spending time at Her Majesty’s pleasure started to dawn on me. The first few weeks in were naturally hard, I missed both family and friends along with my freedom. I had decided from the outset that this would be my one and only time behind bars.

I’d be the first to admit I was never academically gifted, so decided to use my time in gaining some qualifications and certificates. I tried my hand at bricklaying, a bit of plastering here and there and plumbing. This wasn’t for me though, so I decided to speak to the prison education department. I then discovered the Open University, a way of me gaining a degree without the need to attend university full time. I successfully applied to the Prisoners Education Trust for a grant to cover the course fees and enrolled onto a business course.

It was now March 2012, time to be released and I was nervous to say the least. My accommodation had fallen through 3 weeks earlier due to outside interference. Fortunately I had been communicating with my probation officer in the weeks leading up to my release and alternative accommodation had been sourced. I found myself in a hostel, not a million miles away from home but in a town I knew nobody.

I had worked all of my adult life and long-term unemployment was not on the agenda. I knew my conviction would go against me, but determined as ever I secured interviews for a wide range of jobs. I eventually signed with an agency in May 2012 and left the hostel for rented accommodation. The next 18 months saw me work tirelessly to make ends meet. Throughout this period I continued to apply for permanent positions without success, all but one stating my criminal conviction made me a ‘risk’ to employ.

It was now September 2013; I was off licence and was enjoying more freedom. I had applied for and was successful in my application to a family manufacturing company. At last I had that security of a permanent job behind me. The HR Manager said to me after I disclosed my criminal conviction, “As a business we have an obligation to employ a range of people who make up the local community, and those with criminal convictions, whether spent or unspent, fall within this category”.

I married my long-term girlfriend in June 2014 and we are now planning for the future. I am now halfway to completing a degree in Business and Environmental Management. To cap it all off, I have an interview next week for a management position at the family manufacturing company.

Dale Carnegie once quoted “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”

By Paul*

Strange City, Fresh Start, New Life

G Leighphone

In 2006, after serving two years of a four year sentence for manslaughter, I found myself in a government hostel in a strange city. Within a week I registered with the local Job Centre, but every time I had to fill in the disclosure part of an application form, it was like I was writing “put me in the bin” in bright neon letters. I went to employment agencies and they couldn’t wait to get me out door.  One told me that I should come back in ten years, and then they might consider putting me on their books. Then they rapidly even escorted me out of the building; which was completely unnecessary – but more about them later.

After three months of this, I was climbing the walls. So I started working with a Job Centre worker who regularly came to the hostel. I continued to apply for jobs, but I still wasn’t even getting to the interview stage. Then I was asked if I would be interested in going on a work experience scheme run by an organisation called Business in the Community.  This is a group started, funded and run by local businesses in the city aiming to give something back to the community by helping homeless people get a step into employment by giving them work experience and so help them get that first all-important reference. I jumped at the chance. If nothing else, it would at least lift the boredom of unemployment. And, for once, my conviction was not a barrier because their focus was on the homelessness aspect. However, I was made aware that any business which gave me work experience would need to be told about my conviction, but I would have the opportunity to tell them first myself.

To begin with, we had a group meeting every week and we would work with mentors. The mentor was someone from one of the businesses who would help us to write our CV and practice interviews. My mentor was a trainee solicitor from a large law firm.

Soon we were all offered interviews with a local business. The interview was very informal, and that helped me with my nerves. It was at this interview that I told the interviewer about my conviction. She didn’t even bat an eyelid!

The interview was a success and I started I was working in the Human Resources Department. It was the first time since my conviction that I felt people saw me as a person with skills and a personality, not just a conviction. I started off doing the smaller admin jobs, but soon I was accompanying them on job interviews and typing them up. It was a huge step forward.

I ended up being on placement with them for about two months, and I had impressed them – I think mainly because I was just so enthusiastic to have something productive to do. Plus, it turned out that the agency which had told me to come back in ten years was the main agency this law firm used, and Human Resources were not happy about the way I had been treated. They phoned the agency and gave them a very posh bollocking, and said that they were going to have to look into it further as the way the agency has acted conflicted with the law firm’s diversity policies. As a result, the agency promptly put me on their books.

I went on to work in two other departments within the law firm, and I was given more and more responsibility. When my placement came to an end I didn’t want to go but, luckily, the people I had been working with didn’t want me to go either, so the management put a business plan together to produce a position for me.  I had an interview for the role, and I was hired!

Within twelve months I was awarded Newcomer of Year, plus I got promoted from Admin Clerk to Junior Legal Secretary. Three years later I was a senior secretary, and seven years later I am still at the same law firm.

The firm still employs people from the Business in the Community scheme on a regular basis, and I got to know three of them. One had an alcohol addiction, one had got involved in dealing drugs and another had lost his previous job because he had been done for assault – which led to being fired automatically. As far as I know, two of the three are still working there.

So, for anyone leaving prison, I would recommend that you find out if there is a Business in the Community programme in your area or anything similar (your local Job Centre should know), plus do consider working for nothing as you will reap the rewards later. Also, willingly accept all the help and information you can get. I would also recommend that anyone leaving prison should apply for jobs in corporate, or at least large, companies because they have employment targets for things such as diversity. And they will have a Human Resources Department which is separate from the rest of the company, so they have a more objective view; and they are more educated on the implications of discrimination etc. when it comes to job applicants.

Finally, remember that nothing pays off better than showing your enthusiasm to work!

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