Q: I am hoping to do an MA in social work but was convicted for benefit fraud last year for claiming benefits while a student. I received a four-month suspended sentence and 150 hours in community service. I also lost my job working with disabled children at the local authority, not because of my conviction but because of a dispute when I told my employer about the conviction. I also have convictions for shoplifting and theft from a vehicle in 1993 (when I was 17) and a conviction for burglary from 1998. I know it would seem to an observer that I am a habitual criminal but, in all honesty, I will never commit an offence again. Can anyone tell me if my record would bar me from starting a course and, if so, for how long?
A: However strongly I believe in the principles behind the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, the facts set out here suggest you are pushing the principles to the limit by seeking admission to a social work programme. Your offences at ages 17, 22 and 32 go well into adulthood. Your most recent offence shares the characteristic of criminal dishonesty with those of a decade and more previously. A year after your most recent conviction, you tell us that you have changed, but how can this be proved? Professional social work requires integrity, and this offence history goes to the heart of your suitability.
You are going to need to convince at least three types of body of your suitability: a higher education institution must determine your fitness-to-practise; the General Social Care Council must be satisfied that you are of good character and good conduct; and providers must be willing to accept you on placements. All three of these will have access to your criminal history, and for these purposes effectively none of it will be spent. They will be able to carry out an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check, provided under section 113B of the Police Act 1997, which allows the police to disclose information that may have implications on decisions around your suitability. Such a check may throw up circumstances surrounding your convictions, or police concerns about other matters over which you were not convicted, and such information would also be available to these bodies.
As a professional, you adhere to the General Social Care Council’s code of practice for social care workers which expects more of you than of the public at large, and far more than an ability not to breach society’s minimum standards through criminal conduct. It is likely to take extraordinarily compelling evidence of your rehabilitation to get you through these hurdles. I should love to be told that such compelling evidence exists, because it should of course be possible for you to be rehabilitated. But rehabilitation involves a changed way of life. Right now, I suspect that a repeat offence after a decade without one is likely to be seen as better evidence that you have changed, than the success of your recent resolve over the period that you have been serving your sentence.
Allan Norman is a qualified social worker and principal solicitor at Celtic Knot, a specialist law firm in Birmingham
“I manage an older people’s services team in a local authority which has just undergone a single status pay review to streamline pay and conditions over the next three years. The upshot is that most people are being forced to take a pay cut, and feel insulted by senior management. While they may sign the contract, they will probably start looking for other jobs. How can I motivate staff when I agree with everything my team are saying?”
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This article is published in the 26 November 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline I have multiple convictions – should I forget about becoming a social worker?