By Professor Peter Shirlow
Over the last 20 years our society has evolved and transformed in many ways.
Within this context, not many people will have heard about the Employers’ Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions or the Review Panel established to oversee its implementation.
Those who might have heard about it are unlikely to have a great understanding of what it actually does.
The Employers’ Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions outlines details on the formation and composition of a tripartite review panel.
Established in 2010, the Review Panel considers individual cases and builds up evidence regarding the acceptance and adoption of the employers’ guidance. Its current membership includes: Professor Pete Shirlow (Independent Chair), a representative from The Executive Office (TEO), Peter Bunting (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) and Alan Mercer (Confederation of British Industries).
The Panel assists those with conflict-related convictions who have experienced barriers when seeking employment.
It’s not only those with convictions, the Review Panel has been informed of cases where employment opportunities for family members, who have never been arrested or been before a court, have been impacted.
Over the course of the conflict it is estimated that around 30,000 people received convictions, were remanded, fined or interned due to conflict.
And in 2018 – some 20 years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement the majority remain unemployed, under-employed or in short-term work.
This is due in part to vetting legislation and on-going barriers which still exist today – blocking the opportunity for these individuals to participate fully in society.
In Northern Ireland no person with a conflict-related conviction falls under fair employment legislation.
They have no rights under discrimination law. Their employment is at the discretion of the employer.
A critical question for us all is - should we continue to keep conflict-related prisoners out of work?
While some with conflict-related convictions are in employment, most have been unable to find work, travel unhindered, adopt and foster children and access funding and other goods and services.
The majority of those with conflict-related convictions want to make a positive contribution to society.
It is widely recognised that the ability to find work improves mental health and wellbeing, and builds up capacity for a more forward-looking society.
The Employers’ Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions was developed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister prior to the restoration of devolution in 2007. It was intended to assist employers in following best practice while recruiting people with conflict-related convictions.
It promotes recruitment and does not remove existing vetting legislation. It also encourages employers to consider the material relevance of a conviction with regard to the post sought. It does not seek special treatment for people with conflict-related convictions or promote positive discrimination practices.
This met a commitment given by the British Government in the St. Andrew’s Agreement to work with business, trade unions and ex-prisoners’ groups to produce guidance for employers in the private and public sector.
Many public and private sector employers adopted the principles and no problems or difficulties have been reported as a result.
In more recent times, the adoption of the Guidance Principles by the Northern Ireland Civil Service was an important development, creating the potential for those with conflict-related convictions to have greater access to public sector appointments.
The Fresh Start Panel report in 2016 on the Disbandment of Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland agreed with the Review Panel that, while there has been progress, recent cases of vetting and exclusion highlighted continuing barriers which still prevent access to work.
An example of this is the case where an individual who left prison over 30 years ago, and has since been involved in Christian Fellowship and youth work. He had been in employment for 25 years but lost his job when his employer retired.
He was unable to find work due to his conflict-related conviction. He was constantly rejected for posts despite having dedicated his life to helping others following his release from prison.
In another case, a person who worked to resolve family disputes and aid young people affected by poor family function was unable to work as a researcher on these issues due to his conflict-related conviction.
Both individuals were rejected for posts despite the employers noting that they were by far the best qualified and capable candidate.
Others are simply unsuccessful when seeking work at the first stage of recruitment when they declare their conviction, even though it is not materially relevant to the post.
It is also clear many with conflict-related convictions believe they are barred from securing work, particularly in the public sector, and therefore do not apply for job opportunities which arise – effectively self-excluding.
The Review Panel’s role is to consider individual cases and to build up evidence regarding the acceptance and adoption of the Employers’ Guidance.
The Review Panel is keen that employers and those with conflict-related convictions (pre dating April 1998), are fully aware of the Employer’s Guidance and the work of the Panel.
The Panel will be holding a number of events over the coming months to promote the principles and to hear comments and opinions on the employment of those with conflict-related convictions.
The next event will take place on Monday 19 November 2018, from 9.30am-1pm in Crumlin Road Gaol. Should you wish to attend please register by email to: email@example.com or by telephone: 028 9052 3 712.
More information is available for employers and individuals at: www.reviewpanel.org/