Migrants with criminal convictions will be able to get jobs denied to British workers under a new EU-wide criminal records regime being adopted this month.
In Britain, even the most minor convictions for student pranks or breaches of the peace can come back to haunt jobseekers years later if they apply for positions as teachers, policemen or other “sensitive” roles.
But migrants from EU countries applying for the same jobs will be given a clean bill of health, even if they have similar convictions, because other countries either wipe the slate clean or do not keep records of low-level offences.
The problem also applies to British workers trying to get jobs in other EU countries.
Justice campaigners have described the situation as “scandalous” and have asked MEPs and the Home Office to address the issue as a matter of urgency.
The problem arose after Britain signed up to a trial of the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), a new system of sharing criminal records between EU member states which is being permanently adopted this month.
Britain’s rigorous Criminal Records Bureau regime means that even convictions classed as “spent” remain on file for life and can be thrown up during background checks by potential employers anywhere in the EU.
In stark contrast, countries such as Belgium and Germany routinely destroy after just three years records of convictions resulting in prison sentences of less than six months or fines of less than 500 euros.
Other EU countries have laws which prevent employers being told about spent or minor convictions, and in some countries, such as the Netherlands, fines of less than 100 euros for minor crimes are not treated as criminal convictions for the purposes of CRB checks.
As well as the disparity in the way records are kept, EU countries have wildly varying sentences for different offences. In Germany, someone who indecently assaults a child can be given a sentence of as little as six months, whereas in the UK the starting point is two years.
The pilot scheme began under Labour in 2006, when ACPO set up the UK Central Authority for the Exchange of Criminal Records.
Since then, several other EU members have set up similar bodies, and by last month the UK was able to share criminal records with Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia.
The remaining EU member states have to join the ECRIS scheme when it goes EU-wide this month.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats’ MEP group said: “We have been alerted to this and we are taking a growing interest in it.
“It’s something we need to look at very carefully because there is a concern that we end up discriminating against our own people.
“We have to find a way of avoiding inadvertently penalising British citizens by putting them at a disadvantage against other EU citizens when they are applying for jobs.”
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has already promised to scale back access to CRB checks after the number carried out in 2011 came close to three million.
More than 2,000 councils, firms and even landlords’ groups are currently entitled to carry out CRB checks on jobseekers and potential tenants.
Under the ECRIS regime, requests for background checks between one member state and another are sent back with code numbers for different types of offence.
Critics say the system is over-simplified and means that a £10 fine for stealing a traffic cone as a student prank in the UK would come up as a conviction for theft, regardless of the seriousness of the offence.
The same offence in many other EU countries would not appear at all on an ECRIS check.
Nick Pickles, director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said: "The amount of information retained by the British police is hugely disproportionate compared to other European countries and this system will mean the serious flaws of the CRB system are exported to haunt British citizens wherever they may be in Europe.
"The huge amount of data held, often without any criminal conviction, has been a civil liberties concern for many years and yet the Home Office continue to fight to retain details of every minor misdemeanor indefinitely.
"Now British citizens are suffering for the hysteria of policies that have done little to protect the public while other Europeans are able to get on with their lives."