As recent events show, there are no set rules on whether a ‘spent’ conviction bars someone from nurse training. Helen Mooney reports
Last month it emerged that a nursing student had been asked to leave her course at Northumbria University because of a ‘spent conviction’ for theft.
Gemma Wilshaw, now 24, was four weeks into her nurse training course when the university decided that her place should be withdrawn because of a theft committed when she was 16.
While working at a gym, Ms Wilshaw stole £300. She admitted the theft and a related charge of falsifying accounts when she appeared before North Avon Juvenile Court in August 2001. She was convicted and given a 12-month conditional discharge.
Eight years later, Ms Wilshaw was accepted on to a three-year nursing degree course at Northumbria, which like all nursing schools, systematically carries out Criminal Records Bureau checks.
She declared her conviction before starting the course in March but, after the university asked for a full written account of her offence, she was told her place had been ‘withdrawn’.
Ms Wilshaw said that she was devastated as she had her ‘heart set’ on becoming a nurse.
The case raises interesting questions about whether people with spent convictions should be allowed to train as nurses.
It echoes a similar case earlier this year when it emerged that medical student Majid Ahmed had his place at Imperial College London withdrawn because of a spent burglary conviction in 2005.
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which allows people to put minor offences behind them, says that for under-18s in England the law considers a conviction to be ‘spent’ as soon as their period of community service has finished. However, this legislation does not apply to the nursing and medical professions, though a criminal conviction does not automatically bar a person from entering either.
According to the act, each conviction and case should be considered ‘in the light of all relevant circumstances’ and states that anyone wishing to be employed in the medical or nursing professions must always declare a ‘spent’ conviction in applications to work or study.
Northumbria University would not comment on the case of Ms Wilshaw due to reasons of confidentiality. But Margaret Rowe, associate dean of its school of health, community and education studies, told NT that the university is ‘required by
law to carry out a CRB check for students on nursing courses, as it is considered likely that these people will work at some point with either children or vulnerable adults’.
‘Having a criminal record does not prevent an individual from entering the nursing course but there are various contributing factors as to whether or not a person is accepted,’ she said.
However, the government has recently provided a steer on the issue. According to higher education minister Bill Rammell, speaking after the Ahmed case: ‘Universities should not turn away talented individuals when convictions are spent or when they have made steps to change their lives and improve their futures.’
The NMC produces its own guidance on the matter for education providers but again this fails to give one, definitive policy.
Good Health and Good Character: Guidance for Educational Institutions states that ‘providers must judge each individual case on its merits and make decisions with public protection in mind’.
It also says that nurse programme providers should assess each individual to decide what effect a conviction or caution might have on the person’s ability to meet the NMC requirements for entry to a programme leading to registration.
‘Good character is based on a person’s conduct, behaviour, attitude, as well as any conviction and cautions that are not considered compatible with professional registration and that might bring the professions into disrepute,’ it states.
It continues: ‘If an applicant has a conviction or caution, programme providers are required to take into account the degree of risk posed to patients, whether the conviction or caution was disclosed, length of time since the offence, the circumstances surrounding the offence, the applicant’s explanation of the offence, and evidence of good character submitted by the applicant or referees.’
The issue draws different opinions from the profession.
A spokesperson for the Council of Deans of Health reaffirmed current policy. ‘It is up to individual universities to use their procedures in collaboration with their NHS colleagues to make decisions based on individual merit,’ he said.
He added that there could not be ‘hard and fast rules’ about who was accepted and who was denied access to training and that a ‘blanket rule’ could not be applied to all applications.
However, Julie Fagan, campaign coordinator at the charity Campaign Against Unnecessary Suspensions and Exclusions in the NHS (CAUSE), argued that spent convictions should apply to all professions.
‘A spent conviction should be exactly that, when people have served their time they are supposed to have repaid their debt to society,’ she said.
Ruth Parker, a manager at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), backed this view.
‘In the case of Ms Wilshaw, it does seem that it was an unfair decision, considering it was a pretty minor offence and happened a long time ago,’ she said.
‘People should not be denied the opportunity to work or train like this if their record does not indicate that they would cause any risk,’ she added.
Ms Parker explained that last year two nursing students contacted NACRO after having their course places withdrawn from a university because of similar judgements over spent convictions. NACRO spoke to the university on their behalf and succeeded in winning their places back.
‘We pointed out that their records were old and irrelevant and persuaded them that they were not being responsible,’ Ms Parker said.
However, Dame Betty Kershaw, dean of Sheffield University’s school of nursing and RCN acting education adviser, questioned whether anyone with a conviction should be allowed to enter the nursing profession.
‘You have to think yourself, if somebody who has been convicted of an offence – be it shoplifting or grievous bodily harm – whether you would want them to have access to a patient or a patient’s possessions,’ she said.
It is clear that there are certainly no ‘hard and fast rules’ on whether people with spent convictions can be allowed to train and practise as nurses.
The power for now remains with the individual training establishment. In the case of Ms Wilshaw, Northumbria University has obviously made its decision – and it has not been in her favour.
As Dame Kershaw says: ‘Ultimately, if the spent conviction has been declared it is down to the discretion of the dean, with guidance from the university.’