Some convicted killers, sex offenders and drug dealers could have their records wiped under new plans to help them back to work.
People sentenced to more than four years in prison currently have to disclose their conviction to employers for the rest of their working life.
Justice secretary David Gauke wants to scrap this rule to “break barriers” to employment for reformed criminals.
The change will not apply to the most serious crimes – including murder.
“The responsibility, structure and support provided by regular work is an essential component of effective rehabilitation, something which benefits us all by reducing reoffending and cutting the cost of crime,” said Mr Gauke.
“That’s why we are introducing reforms to break barriers faced by ex-offenders who genuinely want to turn their lives around through employment.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the new legislation in England and Wales is most likely to apply to lower level, non-violent offences after a “rehabilitation period” – during which they do not reoffend – has passed.
It will not apply to those convicted of serious sexual, violent and terrorism offences, or where offences attract the most serious sentences, including life.
However, it could be applied to people who have served sentences for offences including manslaughter, assault, robbery and some sex offences.
The exact length of these “rehabilitation periods” – the specified period after which the conviction will not have to be disclosed – will be decided after consultation with the justice sector, the MoJ said.
People applying for sensitive roles, including working with children and vulnerable adults and positions of public trust will still be required to disclose any convictions, even those committed as a child.
In addition to the rule change for sentences of more than four years, the period of time for which shorter and community sentences have to be revealed to employers will be scaled back under the new proposals.
The MoJ said the new rules on disclosure will also stand for applications by ex-offenders for housing, adoption, education and insurance.
‘Hanging over them’
Mr Gauke said the reforms were intended to remove the stigma of convictions, insisting the government “will never compromise public safety”.
“That is why separate and more stringent rules will continue to apply for sensitive roles, including those which involve working with children and vulnerable adults,” he said.
According to the MoJ, regular work is a major factor in breaking the cycle of crime but many ex-offenders find it impossible to get a job – and reoffending is on the rise in England and Wales.
Just 17% of offenders are in employment a year after their release from prison, and half of employers say they would not consider hiring an ex-offender, research suggests.
‘Free of stigma’
The reforms set out will be introduced as new legislation when parliamentary time becomes available.
Penelope Gibbs, chairwoman of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: “Currently anyone convicted of shop-lifting twice aged 12 must disclose that when applying to be a traffic warden aged 55.
“Shortening rehabilitation periods should be a first step in reform of whole criminal records disclosure system.”
The charity Unlock also welcomed the justice secretary’s plans but questioned how effective the legislation will be when information remains online.
Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said: “The government needs to make sure that the legislation does what it is intended to do – give people a chance to live free of the stigma of their past.
“We look forward to working with the government so that law-abiding people with convictions have a real chance to move on positively with their lives without their criminal record hanging over them.”
The Institute of Directors said the proposal “merits serious consideration” with employers being “much more open to giving people a second chance than is often thought”.
“The details matter, of course, but this could fit with efforts by companies to find ways or removing bias from the recruitment process,” a spokesperson added.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) also said ex-offenders who have changed their ways deserve a second chance.
Craig Beaumont, FSB’s director of external affairs and advocacy, said: “With employment levels at record highs, and one in three smaller firms citing skills shortages as a major barrier to growth, it’s critical that we bring those furthest from the labour market into our workforces.”