Tuesday 25 June 2019 5:42 am

Out of the prison cell, into the workplace

Crime is a top tier political issue for members of the public, but it has barely featured in the race for Number 10 Downing Street.

Beyond the popular but reactive refrain of putting more bobbies on the beat, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have so far failed to spell out how they would curb rising criminality on Britain’s streets.

So much for the traditional party of law and order.

The leadership contenders should begin with a longstanding Conservative truth: that the best way to lift up the vulnerable and help those with troubled life chances is by giving them the independence and security of a steady job.

This principle runs through our welfare system; it must now be rooted in our criminal justice system too.

A wealth of academic evidence shows the influence of employment in desistance from crime. Work offers the social relationships, financial stability, and sense of purpose that are critical for keeping people on the straight and narrow.

Analysis for the Ministry of Justice reveals that a steady job can cut reoffending risk by 20 percentage points for those leaving prison, and some international studies imply a reduction of as much as 38 percentage points.

Yet Britain’s prisons are failing in all but their most basic purpose. It is a well known but damning statistic that half of prisoners go on to commit another crime within a year of leaving prison, a figure that has barely moved in decades.

Less widely known is the fact that just 17 per cent of prisoners are in steady work a year after leaving the prison gate – despite the labour market being at full employment and vacancies at their highest in years.

The reality is that prisons have become holding pens of idleness and boredom – a fifth of prisoners spend fewer than two hours out of their cell every day.

At the same time, the number of prisoners on learning courses has fallen by 13 per cent over the last two years, and the number achieving GCSE-level qualification fell by two thirds between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

No wonder the vast majority of prisoners leave custody with the literacy and numeracy levels of an 11-year-old.

As my report for the think tank Onward sets out today, the answer is to turn prisons into centres of training and work – to give every ex-offender the opportunity of a decent, paid job after they leave.

Learning from countries such as Norway, whose prisoner employment rate is 34 per cent, Her Majesty’s Prison Service should require every prisoner to train or work for 40 hours a week, and track their progress from reception to release.

To transition from prison gate to job interview, ministers should help offenders gain experience while still behind bars, through new prisoner apprenticeships and an expansion of Release on Temporary Licence, where prisoners are allowed out during the day to work in the community.

Most importantly, though, we need a sea change in the attitudes of employers. Our polling reveals that only a third of employers say they would employ an ex-offender, compared to half who would not, despite only one per cent of bosses surveyed having had a bad experience hiring one.

We propose Employment Councils of local business leaders in every prison and a nationwide Second Chances scheme to accredit enlightened employers who take a chance.

We have been asked to give the candidates for the post of Prime Minister a chance at redemption. We should do the same for people in our prison system too.