Peter Stanford: Disqualification rules heavy-handed

Labelling ex-offenders as categories, not individuals, will not help them escape their past, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It is a simple principle: those who have committed certain crimes are sent to prison. The deprivation of their liberty is the punishment and the jail sentence is their opportunity to begin rehabilitation.

But - as many newly released inmates find - the punishment goes on because they carry the stigma of a criminal record. In the forefront of those arguing that this is unjust are prison reform charities. But in the year ahead, such organisations face having to show just the same tendency to go on punishing those who have already served their sentences. Why? Because the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016 says those with certain convictions are automatically disqualified from being trustees of charities.

At the Longford Trust, where we support young ex-prisoners financially and with mentoring to go to university, the trustees are currently recruiting one of those we have worked with successfully to join our board. But now, it seems, we must first double check their past convictions against a list drawn up by parliament to make sure none of them is "undesirable". Our own common sense apparently counts for nothing.

One of the first things you learn when working with prisoners is not to ask them what they "did". Yes, at some stage, of course you need to know if you are going to work productively with them and not put them in difficult situations. But if prison reform charities are going to be forced, as this legislation insists, to define and discard people according to what they did five, ten, 15 and 20 years ago, we might as well shut up shop right now. The whole point of rehabilitation is that every individual, however terrible their crime, has the capacity to change and reform. If, as a society, we refuse to accept that as our starting point, we are also writing off our own humanity.

Other professional bodies have learned the lesson. The Solicitors Regulation Authority, for example, has a vetting process for those with criminal convictions before it allows them to train as lawyers. But there is no automatic disqualification against a list of crimes. It realises that even those whose offences might have a direct impact on any future work are capable of changing.

The implementation of these arbitrary rules should be delayed until September to give charities "enough time to prepare" for their implementation, the Charity Commission tells us. It is not too late to reconsider. Recent history has shown us that blanket bans are always a mistake because they treat people as categories, not individuals. When ex-offenders who have worked hard, often against the odds, to put their criminal pasts behind them find themselves labelled as a forbidden category that ignores the precise and personal details of the crimes, it sends out a clear message that they will never escape their past. Disillusionment follows, often leaving them more vulnerable to reoffending, which is the exact opposite of what this wrong-headed piece of legislation is trying to achieve.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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