When if comes to employment policy of ex-offenders, only one factor should really matter: how does this impact on re-offending rates?
For this discussion, I am leaving out the DBS checks, as that is a separate system and debate. However, on the whole, having checks for relevant offences when applying for protected positions is understandable and defensible from a public protection position. I am not for one minute suggesting DBS checks are used correctly in the UK; they are not. But, as I said, that's a separate (though closely linked) debate.
The UK and Ireland are unique in Europe, in that they place the onus for background checks on the employer. In every other European country, it is for the state to decide if an individual needs to be barred from working in certain positions. Usually, this is a separate system to the (equivalent of) DBS checks. For example, if the courts feel that an individual poses a risk when working in financial institutions, they will make an order that prevents them from working in such institutions. That is then entirely policed by the state. Outside of the courts, criminal records are treated as private and protected information. Employers cannot ask for information about criminal records by law, unless they have government authorisation to do so (security organisations etc.) The result is that ex-offenders have no more difficulty gaining employment than any other member of the public - there is no discrimination.
In the UK and Ireland, it is the employers responsibility to decide whether an individual is a risk to the organisation in any way. If the employer becomes aware that the individual has a record when applying for a position, they will usually carry out a risk assessment. The risk assessment will always include a question that asks something like: 'Does the individual pose a risk to the reputation of this organisation?' This is a particular issue if the applicant is an RSO. The organisation has to consider if the public would react in a negative manner, were they to knowingly employ an RSO. The answer will nearly always be yes, so the application is rejected. This is not an issue in the rest of Europe, because the employer does not know that the applicant has a criminal record, so they do not need to consider 'risk to their reputation'.
Now, it has been well established that one of the biggest factors in whether an ex-offender goes on to offend again is unemployment. So when a UK (or Irish) employer asks the question: 'Does the individual pose a risk to the reputation of this organisation?', we can flip that around and ask 'Would our reputation be enhanced by rejecting the applicant?' The perverse thing is, logic dictates that they believe their reputation is enhanced by rejecting the applicant. Even though that means the person is statistically more likely to commit another offence due to unemployment, and would be a drain on society through claiming benefits and not paying taxes. There would be even more of a cost to the tax-payer if that individual ends up with another (very expensive) prison sentence. Even though there is clearly no benefit at all to wider society when ex-offenders remain unemployed, this country seems hell-bent on making sure the situation remains the same. So I ask the first question again: how does this impact on re-offending rates?
In the UK and Ireland: extremely low levels of ex-offender employment - huge increase in re-offending rates - more crime - more victims - astronomically higher cost to the tax payer.
In the rest of Europe: Healthy levels of ex-offender employment - significantly lower levels (compared to UK and Ireland) of re-offending - less crime - less victims - cost-effective for the taxpayer (and more people paying tax to boot!)
Is the ROA fair? I'm not sure who the question is aimed at, but I can't think of anyone that the RoA is fair to, least of all, society. It's expensive and leads to more crime. Of course, many other aspects of the criminal justice system have been documented to cause more crime too. However, this seems to be ignored when making policy decisions. The only factor that seems important when making policy decisions is: 'does this get us more votes?' The cynic in me thinks that the public like seeing more punishment because certain (large) swathes of the media push it as a form of entertainment. So policy decisions that reduce this entertainment factor get less votes. In the mean time, the public seems completely unaware of the huge cost to them both financially and societally. I firmly believe that the RoA is one of the many forms of societal self-harm that this country seems to revel in.
Apologies if this turned into a bit of a rant; I get quite passionate about the subject.