Job applicants should not be asked about their criminal record on job application forms, an academic study has claimed.

The paper, by Dr Beth Weaver of Strathclyde University for the Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice (SCCJ), finds that criminal record declarations are a "clumsy tool" to predict reoffending, but put off applicants with convictions, but that some recruits with no record may pose a greater risk of offending, and employers therefore get a false sense of security through relying on such declarations.

The findings have been backed by Virgin Trains and the charity Business in the Community, who are calling on employers to "ban the box" by dropping the declaration from application forms and instead find more supportive ways to discuss potential recruits’ criminal backgrounds.

According to the paper, the average time between someone committing a crime and being at no more risk of offending, or reoffending, than someone who had not committed a crime was between seven and 10 years. However this varies depending on age, gender and type of crime. While some offending backgrounds would make potential employees unsuitable for certain roles, there was evidence that many candidates are either put off or dismissed out of hand by employers on declaration of a criminal record, despite there being little evidence that this would present a significant risk of reoffending.

"Around one in six people in the UK have a criminal record, so this issue affects a large number of people", commented Dr Weaver, an associate director of the SCCJ. "Giving people a chance to work can improve outcomes for people and contribute to a safer and more just society. Asking people to disclose their convictions at the job application stage legitimises employer discrimination, as most employers don’t know how to make sense of the information provided, and undermines the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act."

Virgin Trains said it has been proactively recruiting people with convictions for five years and has banned the criminal record declaration form on job application forms. Kathryn Wildman, Virgin’s Talent Acquisition Manager, explained: "We’ve banned the box, but that doesn’t mean we don’t ask job applicants about their past offending. Rather than ask people to tick a box on application, we’ll have a conversation at interview stage in which we talk about their offences and where they are on the rehabilitation journey.

"That may still result in a no from us, but it gives that person the opportunity to discuss their past and what they’ve got to offer in a supportive environment rather than just being dismissed out of hand. And our experience is that we’ve identified some fantastic people with convictions who have gone on to perform really well for us and helped our business grow."

Business in the Community, the organisation behind the Ban the Box campaign in the UK, said in response to the research that asking people to declare convictions upfront is likely to put off talented candidates and, in some cases, drive people back to crime.

Campaign Manager Jessica Rose commented: "The research shows that including an upfront declaration on application forms can be a crude tool for assessing a candidate’s risk to a business. There is also strong evidence suggesting that people can permanently move away from crime and that employment plays an important part in this. We understand that employers need to manage risk in recruitment, but asking everyone who applies for a role about criminal convictions at the start of the process tells people who are trying to move on with their lives that they won’t be given a fair chance. We urge all employers to remove the tick box and carefully consider whether, when and how they need to ask about criminal convictions and what they will do with that information once they have it."

Click here to access the research paper.