Ex-offenders could help bolster the UK’s workforce after Brexit, the Justice Secretary has suggested, as he called for a “culture change” in how employers perceive former prisoners.
David Gauke unveiled plans that could see more inmates let out temporarily to go to work to improve their job prospects after release.
Ministers are also considering offering National Insurance “holidays” to businesses which hire individuals who have served their sentences, while a scheme to recruit them directly into the Civil Service is being drawn up.
“We have a thriving jobs market and demand for workers in some sectors is very high.
“Leaving the European Union is also likely to have an impact on the workforce in sectors such as catering, construction and agriculture.
“Perhaps in the past the answer has always been about migrant workers, who’ve made a big contribution to our economy.
“But I think the British public expect us to ensure that as many UK citizens are employed as possible.”
Mr Gauke cited figures showing that only 17% of ex-offenders are in PAYE work a year after coming out of jail and only half of employers say they would even consider employing a former prisoner.
Calling for a “culture change”, he said: “I want employees, from the shop floor to the boardroom, to call out and challenge employers who turn a blind eye to attracting and representing ex-offenders in their workplace.
“I think the public mood has changed somewhat in recognising that when an offender comes out of prison we, as a society, don’t want them to return to crime and re-offend.”
Mr Gauke‘s comments came as he launched a drive to improve the chances of prisoners leading law-abiding lives after release and reduce re-offending rates estimated to cost society £15 billion a year.
The programme was designed to help prepare offenders for life on the outside by taking part in work or training and firming up family links.
But between 2013 and 2017 ROTL numbers dropped by more than a third, producing nearly 200,000 fewer releases involving 4,000 fewer prisoners.
Campaigners have suggested a key factor in the “under-use” of the scheme is fear of disproportionate criticism in the small numbers of cases that go wrong.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said new research indicates that, for prisoners given at least one release on temporary licence, additional releases were associated with “small but significant” reductions in re-offending rates.
“These findings strongly suggest that there is a beneficial impact from workplace ROTL,” the MoJ’s strategy document said.
“We need to make sure that, where the risk to the public is low, more prisoners are gaining work experience through workplace ROTL.”
Officials are consulting on ways to “enhance governors’ discretion” and improve access to ROTL, but the Government stressed that no changes would be introduced which could jeopardise public safety.
The MoJ also said ex-prisoners could be recruited directly into the Civil Service, and it was committed to considering how to take forward a Conservative manifesto proposal for a one-year holiday on employer National insurance contributions for firms taking on ex-offenders.
A new organisation, the New Futures Network, will be set up to persuade employers to recruit former prisoners, while governors will be given the power to commission education and training programmes in their establishments.
The MoJ will also look at the role of the incentives and earned privileges system behind bars and further steps to increase the use of technology in cells and on wings for educational purposes.
Presenting the blueprint at HMP Isis in south-east London, Mr Gauke said: “I want prisons to be places of hope and aspiration that propel offenders into employment, and ultimately help to reduce the number of victims of crime in the future.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the strategy is “full to the brim with good intentions”.
“But almost none of those good intentions set a date for when they will be delivered, or how many people will benefit. We have heard many of these promises before,” he added.