Liz Truss, the justice secretary, has put an end to the strategy of reducing Britain’s prison population by cutting sentences and releasing inmates early. There is, though, an alternative that she ought to try.
The key to prison reform is finding a way to curb reoffending rates — half of prisoners reoffend within a year of release. A strategy that gives inmates the tools they need to quickly earn a living at the end of their sentence is the key to cutting reoffending. It could also reduce levels of homelessness — a third of rough sleepers in Westminster are former inmates.
This strategy rests on three pillars: encouragement to employers to train and hire inmates; forging close relationships between prisons, employers and Jobcentre Plus; and the provision of short, sharp construction apprenticeships in prisons. Responsibility for each pillar rests respectively with the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and Ms Truss’s department.
Pioneering companies such as Timpson and Virgin have made headway on the first pillar. Each of them runs training and interview programmes in prison to identify potential employees who can start work upon release. Such projects keep newly released inmates in work and out of harm’s way.
Recognising their impact, the Commons work and pensions select committee, which I chair, has urged the Treasury to pilot a reduction in national insurance contributions to encourage more companies to introduce such schemes.
In addition, the DWP should ensure that Jobcentre Plus begins working with prisoners as they near their release date, to help them gain skills and training and to find work as soon as they leave.
This opens up the need for Ms Truss to work on the strategy’s third element — the provision of short, sharp apprenticeship courses in prisons that within ten weeks equip inmates with some of the skills the construction industry badly needs. Bricklayers, carpenters and plumbers trained in this way can earn up to £150 a day after their first year in the job, and it would help the government deliver the extra new homes it wants built.
By equipping former offenders to become future workers, this strategy would not only cut the prison population but would boost our skills base, as well as tax revenues.