Practical guidance – Recruiting people with criminal records to work in prisons

Aim of this guidance

This guidance is to support organisations in recruiting staff and volunteers that have criminal records to work in prisons where ‘vetting’ by HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) is required.

The focus of the guidance is to provide:

  • An outline of the prison vetting process
  • Details of how prison vetting works for people who have a criminal record
  • The options open to you as an organisation if an applicant is declined through the vetting process.

Various terms are used in this guidance – for example prison clearance, prison vetting and security clearance. These all relate to the process overseen by HMPPS that decides whether somebody can work in a prison.

Why this is important?

Many organisations recruit for roles that require working in prisons, or with people on probation. These include HMPPS, charities, CICs and others. Although these organisations will carry out their own pre-employment checks, part of the process will usually involve the individual being security vetted by HMPPS. The need for vetting can discourage organisations from recruiting people with criminal records because of concern that they won’t pass.

If you are recruiting for a role working in a prison, you should not be deterred from considering somebody with a criminal record. They will often have something unique to offer and as well as talent, skills and knowledge. Their personal experience of the criminal justice system may be a help rather than a hindrance. Employers who want to recruit from the widest talent pool will need to be clear with applicants that a criminal record is not an automatic barrier.

Many organisations wrongly assume that HMPPS have a blanket ban on staff with criminal records. This is not the case, and each case is considered on its own merits. However organisations will need to be aware that their preferred candidate will need to wait for a vetting decision before starting in the role. This can be difficult to manage for small organisations in particular.

Employers are often unaware that an applicant who is declined enhanced security vetting via HMPPS may be able to apply for ‘Standard Plus’ vetting (if their role is appropriate and if the Governor supports the application). Applications for ‘normal’ vetting which would be likely to fail can be marked prior to submission for consideration at Standard Plus to save time.

The role of prison vetting

All people applying to work within a prison will require some form of security vetting.

Vetting checks are not required on ad-hoc visitors who visit a prison on an occasional basis provided the visitor is escorted at all times by a prison key-holder (this could be a member of staff  or a volunteer from an outside organisation). Anyone who will be visiting a prison regularly should expect to have to obtain clearance. Many prisons will require formal clearance after three visits.

The levels of vetting

There are approximately seven levels of vetting. This guidance will look at three types that are particularly relevant to external organisations with staff and volunteers working in prisons. These are:

  • Enhanced Level 1
  • Disclosure and Barring Service Check
  • Standard Plus Vetting

Other levels of check (not covered in this guidance) can include:

  • Baseline Personnel Security Standard (BPSS)
  • Enhanced Level 2 for all HMPPS directly-employed staff, non-directly employed staff (dependant on their role) and those applying for CTC
  • Counter Terrorism Checks (CTC) for those staff working in the high security estate and other designated roles
  • Security Check (SC) for anybody having access to top secret assets

Providing the right information to assess the level of vetting required

Prisons use a risk assessment tool to decide on the appropriate level of clearance. This is often done by a member of prison staff who has an overview of the applicant’s job role. However, problems can sometimes arise if a staff member isn’t familiar with the specifics of the role.

Organisations should provide clear information to the prison, including a copy of the role description and should also address some key factors such as:

  • Does the role take place in a high-security prison?
  • Does the role involve working in the chaplaincy?
  • Does the role require the applicant to draw keys and have freedom of movement around the prison?
  • Will the applicant performing the role be accompanied at all times?
  • Does the role involve the applicant working face to face with prisoners?
  • If so, are they accompanied or unaccompanied by a member of staff?
  • Will the applicant have any access to sensitive materials or information, such as prisoner records?
  • Does the role involve the applicant having any contact with under 18’s in the prison, whether they are prisoners, family members or any others?

Enhanced Level 1 Check

This is the security vetting level associated with most roles for non-directly employed workers. Applicants will work in non-high security establishments, they will have contact with prisoners and will normally have access to keys.

This level of check will involve a number of checks, including a criminal record check. As HMPPS roles are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, vetting can consider both unspent and spent convictions and cautions. Checks are run against the Police National Computer so cautions and convictions that would be filtered from a DBS check will be seen. However, HMPPS roles are not exempt from the filtering rules so these do not need to be declared and will not be taken into consideration.

Shared Services Connected Limited are responsible for carrying out the process and presenting each individual case to the Approvals and Compliance Team for final decision checks on non-directly employed workers.

Disclosure and Barring Service Checks

It may be necessary for applicants in certain roles to also have enhanced DBS checks.  This will include all staff and workers in regular contact with children under 18 and for healthcare professionals providing clinical services across the HMPPS estate.

Enhanced Level 1

Security vetting for people with a criminal record

Organisations should not assume that a previous conviction or some other form of criminal record will automatically disqualify an individual from obtaining security clearance. Many organisations choose to recruit people who have had direct personal experience of the prison system to support their service users.

However, all applicants for all levels of clearance in prisons will be expected to disclose cautions and spent convictions (unless protected) as well as unspent convictions. Failing to disclose a past caution or conviction is likely to result in clearance being refused. Organisations should provide applicants with clear guidance as to what needs to be disclosed.

Completing a vetting application can create anxiety for people with a criminal record. Where the conviction is spent and does not need to be declared in other contexts (i.e. most job applications and insurance), it may come as a surprise to an applicant that they would still have to disclose it in a clearance application. A further cause for concern is that the outcome of the clearance process is uncertain.

What does Enhanced Level 1 involve?

Each prison has a Vetting Contact Point (VCP) who is the primary point of contact for pre-appointment security screening.

The VCP provides liaison and support functions within the prison establishment, primarily involving checking over applications and sending these to the Approvals and Compliance Team (ACT), which processes applications centrally. It will then be the decision of Shared Services Connected Limited to confirm whether an applicant has been approved or declined permission to work within the prison estate.

VCP’s deal with all applications from staff and volunteers which means they are extremely busy. Clear communications and a good relationship can help to smooth over many problems. If an organisation has a good understanding of the basics of how vetting works, risk assessments can often be carried out easily and individual clearance applications processed with the minimum of fuss.

What are the chances of success?

Clearance applications are assessed individually meaning general guidance can’t be given about the kinds of offences which result in clearance being refused. This depends on how long ago the offence took place, the role the individual will undertake, the seriousness of the offence including the outcome of that offence and whether or not all offences have been declared amongst other factors.

There is no definite pattern in the pass and fail rates for different offences by staff and applicants who have applied for enhanced clearance, but multiple offences, and single offences involving violence, drugs or dishonesty are among the categories that are refused clearance more often.

In early 2016 NOMS (as it was then) provided Unlock with some figures that covered vetting applications over a 5 month period between 14/8/2015 and 26/1/2016. They gave a breakdown of the number of vetting applications received and the numbers which were approved or declined.

A total of 5843 level 1 cases were considered, of which 560 had ‘hits’ on the Police National Computer. 390 applicants passed vetting and 170 failed. This means that 70% of applications were approved.

In 2019 a Freedom of Information request provided data on applications between July and November 2019.

  • 1038 vetting applications were submitted to work for HMPPS with a criminal conviction, caution, warning or reprimand. Data cannot be provided only for those with a criminal conviction alone.Of those 1038 applications, 75% passed the vetting process for a variety of positions, with 158 currently employed as Prison Officers (public sector prisons) and 46 as Prison Custody Officers (private sector prisons).

On the face of it then, most applications are successful. However, here is no data available which breaks down the type of criminal record or the disposal an applicant received, and whether, for example, a particularly strict approach is taken to people who have been to prison.

What can you do if an application is refused?

If the Approvals and Compliance team decline security vetting then, providing the applicant will be involved in the delivery of rehabilitative activities for the prison or for a Transforming Rehabilitation provider they may be able to apply for Standard Plus security vetting.

If an applicant is likely to fail ‘normal’ vetting, the application can be marked as potentially eligible for Standard Plus vetting from the outset.

Standard Plus

What is Standard Plus?

People who have successfully desisted after a history of offending can set a powerful example to people and prison and this is recognised by the fact that Standard Plus security vetting is available for this group of people, even if they fail to obtain the ‘normal’ level of clearance.

Standard Plus security vetting has been developed to capture:

  • People with criminal records and ‘offenders on post release licence’
  • Those fulfilling a role where they will work regularly in a prison
  • Those delivering work focused on rehabilitation

Its purpose is to improve and provide opportunities for workers/volunteers with previous criminal convictions to work with organisations and prisoners without increasing risks and compromising safety and security.

For the purpose of Standard Plus security vetting, ‘ex-offenders’ are defined as individuals whose community/suspended sentence order, licence or post sentence supervision has been successfully completed and there is no longer a right to recall. People on licence may only be considered for Standard Plus vetting after they have successfully completed an initial period on licence within the community. (This initial period would be at least half the licence element of the sentence for those who have received custodial sentences or at least half of the community order for those in the community.

Standard Plus vetting is restricted on two counts:

  • It will only last for twelve months after which the position will need to be reviewed and renewed if appropriate.
  • A separate application is required for each individual prison that the service provider may wish the individual to work in.

Sentences for certain offences will only be considered for Standard Plus vetting in exceptional circumstances.  These include:

  • Offences relating to terrorism
  • Offences relating to children
  • Racially / religiously aggravated offences
  • Supply of controlled drugs offences
  • Violent and/or serious offences
  • Sexual offences

Applicants with these offences will need to be supported by the organisation by way of a business case setting out the benefits of employing the individual into the role. Although it has been available since 2013, Standard Plus has been relatively under-utilised by prisons. If you are recruiting for a particular prison, ask the relevant staff if they have used this route before and if not, direct them to the HMPPS guidance.

How do you make an application for Standard Plus?

  • For a prison based role, the Governor/Director of the prison has to agree to consider the Standard Plus application. The applicant will need to complete the appropriate security vetting questionnaire as with other vetting applications and it is sent to Shared Services Connected Limited as usual. If it is declined due to an adverse criminal history, the establishment can request Standard Plus be considered.
  • The Approvals and Compliance Team at NOMS Shared Services will provide the Governor with the result of the applicant’s full criminal record and any additional information which will assist in any risk assessment evaluation.
  • It is the responsibility of the Governor to approve or decline the Standard Plus vetting. If approved, the decision will be confirmed to the Shared Services Team who will then update the applicants vetting record.

What are the chances of getting Standard Plus vetting clearance?

NOMS provided a breakdown of Standard Plus vetting applications from January 2015 to January 2016. This showed the following:

Total number of Standard Plus vetting applications 228
Number not proceeded with** 76
Total number approved 90
Total number pending decision 8
Total number of CRC applications 5
Total number no longer requiring Standard Plus vetting 49

(**This may be due to the Government declining the application, the application being terminated after no response being received from the establishment or the applicant not being in scope.)

What can you do if your application is refused?

If a Standard Plus application is refused by the Prison Governor, the organisation can request a review of the decision. Any reviews that cannot be resolved may be considered independently by the relevant Deputy Director of Custody who is responsible for the particular region concerned. The decision of the Deputy Director will be final.

Case studies

We’re keen to include further examples of organisations that have recruited people who have needed to get prison clearance. We don’t want to publish personal details, but if you fit this bill and you’re willing to share your experience to help other employers in similar situations, please get in touch.

Good practice tips

  1. Don’t assume that a criminal record means an applicant will be refused prison clearance
  2. Support any individuals with a criminal record going through clearance
  3. Emphasise the importance of applicants disclosing everything that they need to
  4. Give applicants details of Unlock’s online information on applying to work in a prison

Useful resources

PSI 27/2014 – Security vetting – Additional risk criteria for ex-offenders working in prison and community setting

PSI 07/2014 – Security vetting

More information

  1. There is information for individuals applying for prison vetting on Unlock’s information site.
  2. For further advice about this guidance, please contact us.

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This guidance was last updated in June 2020

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