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24 May 2016 | By Andrew Selous MP Community

Train prisoners to ease the skills shortage

Prison reform took centre stage in the latest Queen’s Speech, but businesses have an important role to play in reducing the cycle of reoffending

Nearly half of all prisoners, and 60 per cent of those on short sentences, will reoffend within one year of release – at a cost of £13bn every year. To tackle it, the government has set out its stall on rehabilitation and the idea that fewer will reoffend if they have a job and money to pay the bills (or at least a route to doing so), when their sentence is up.

This means focusing on education and skills while offenders are still in prison, providing them with vocational training and, where appropriate, with work experience. And it needs businesses to get involved.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is hosting a series of employer engagement events at prisons across the country to encourage more to partner the prison service. So in May, Business Voice visited HMP Ford in Sussex, where 40 inmates currently work outside the prison on community service, 26 have unpaid work placements, 11 are in full-time paid employment and 10 are attending college.

As well as visiting the prison’s own training facilities, and talking to companies and prisoners already involved, Business Voice also spoke to Andrew Selous MP, minister for prisons and rehabilitation:

Q. The MoJ is focusing on prisoner rehabilitation – and the important role that businesses can play in offering work. But there's still a lack of awareness from businesses about how they can get involved, so what’s new here?
A. Prisoners have always done work, but there is a renewed emphasis on sustained and meaningful employment, and we want to drive that much further forward.

We’ve had a really good response from employers involved. Here at HMP Ford, we’ve heard stories of one prisoner who helped to add significant turnover to a business and now has his own consultancy; another is working hard for a ship-repair company, now a skilled welder; and of prisoners learning painting and decorating skills, which is encouraging given the 30,000 painters and decorators we’re short of in the economy.

Q. Why do you need employers to get involved?
A. Employers are a key part of the answer to cutting crime, reducing reoffending and keeping their staff safe and able to live in a crime-free community.

And yes, it's a big ask from me, but actually, the MoJ has a strong offer to British business in return. First think about our training opportunities and the huge potential in many prisons. Then look at the skills and labour shortages of British industry, which are increasingly acute in many areas: from HGV drivers, to engineering technicians and construction workers, to those in catering and hospitality.

We can help the economy at the same time as cutting crime. It’s a win-win.

Q. And how can businesses partner with the Prison Service most effectively?
A. We need to know where the skills shortages are. And we need to link up at a local level as well as nationally, so shortages in a particular area can be matched with the training offer within a prison.

The “gold standard” model is when an employer, such as Halfords, sets up a training academy within a prison, takes a prisoner into their business on day release towards the end of their sentence, and then offers employment, provided everything's satisfactory from both sides, on release.

From the business’ point of view, that gives them an extended interview period to get to know the people that they are taking on. And what we hear again and again from employers is that they are getting above average levels of loyalty and commitment from the ex-offenders that they take on.

Q. But that model won’t necessarily be easy for a smaller business to replicate…  
A. Within prisons, we've got engineering, carpentry, plumbing workshops and a wider range of skills training, so we can provide foundation level skills before a business takes them on. We're keen to work with all sizes of business, if they tell us what they need.

Q. How would you allay concerns employers might have, whether that’s about reoffending, safety, or even a public backlash about giving chances to offenders?
A. Number one, I think it's just about being fair and giving ex-offenders a fair chance – we know it cuts crime and keeps everyone safe.

Secondly, businesses will already be employing ex-offenders, except they won't know it if their convictions are spent. Every employee is a potential risk – you never know everything about every person that you're taking on – but the ex-offenders we provide will have been extensively risk assessed.

And it’s not just employers saying they get above average levels of commitment or loyalty from the men and women they're taking on; other employees in the business tend to feel they are doing something really socially useful and they're quite proud of what their business is doing.

Q. What about worries about being caught up in bureaucracy – and the length of time it can take to get a suitable prisoner out on licence?
A. We are working to streamline and simplify our processes to make this as employer-friendly as possible, commensurate with our duty to keep the public safe and have proper risk assessment. The move to greater governor autonomy will help. And we already provide flexibility for business needs: within an open prison, we can plan for people leaving at 5am and getting back at 11pm.

Q. How many new employers are you looking to engage?
A. As many as possible. I wouldn't particularly want to put a number on it. I'm not under any illusion that we have quite a lot further to go. We have some brilliant employers – Halfords, Timpson, Greggs, DHL, Cisco, Marks & Spencer, MITIE, to mention some big names, and many, many smaller ones, but I would like lots more.

Frankly, I hear some wholly inadequate excuses from businesses that should know better, who I'd like to challenge to look again at this issue. There are very few businesses who can’t engage in this area.

Q. What steps can businesses take if they are interested?
A. I realise it's a journey, and people will need to engage and think about it. But visit your local prison, talk to me, write to me. There needs to be commitment at board level, but get them to talk to the chief executives at some of the companies I’ve mentioned or visit the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Reoffending – as the business to business conversation is the best one for them to have.

Q. So what does success look like by the end of the Parliament?
A. Success looks like British business being fully engaged with the MoJ to cut crime and fill skills shortages – a quantum leap in terms of the businesses and offenders that are making that journey from prison to work.