Ex-offenders to face a ‘cliff edge’

The provision of housing for prison leavers featured in the latest Commons debate on the Homelessness Bill.

But a key parliamentary committee had already heard how more needs to be done to cushion release  – with finding a home and  job ‘absolutely central’.

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Former offenders leaving prison face a ‘cliff edge’ drop off in support offered to help them re-enter normal life and find work, and that even while in prison, education and employment support are fragmented and good practice is ‘patchy and inconsistent’.

The government’s own assessment of the prison system is that it fails to rehabilitate criminals or prevent them from reoffending, and the cost to the taxpayer of reoffending stands at around £15bn per year in the criminal justice system alone.

Ministers admitted as much in evidence to Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) when it met in session toward the end of last year.

Evidence to the committee made it apparent there is no one person in government who has responsibility for helping prison leavers into work, and the committee itself said there was no clear strategy for how different agencies, in different prisons, should work together to achieve the common goal of getting ex-offenders into work.

Early reports on the government’s new ‘Through the Gate’ service are acknowledged as disappointing: in researching resettlement services for short-term prisoners HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons did not encounter a single prisoner who had been helped into employment by Through the Gate provision.

Following the end of day one mandation to the Work Programme, an increasing number of ex-offenders will rely on Jobcentre Plus (JCP) Work Coaches for employment support, and the Committee is concerned at evidence that even ex-offenders who are job-ready and keen to work may be dismissed by JCPs as hard cases.

The Committee found:

  • All prisons be required to demonstrate strong links with employers, including local businesses
  • All prisons should be required to offer workshop courses, apprenticeships or similar employment opportunities with real employers
  • All Jobcentres should have a specified person who specialises in helping ex-offenders into employment.

A move to allow payment of Jobseeker’s Allowance on day one of a prisoner’s release was welcomed, the DWP having offered no explanation as to why claims for Employment Support Allowance and Universal Credit cannot also be made in prison and paid on day one of release – as the WPC says they should be.

Members specifically saluted the efforts of employers like Timpson and Virgin Trains who recognise the benefits of employing and supporting ex-offenders, but 50% of employers would not even consider offering any ex-offender a job.

Evidence indicated employers need to be encouraged to change their recruitment practices, and incentivised to do so.

RELATED: Given a second chance – case study

RELATED: Helping ex-offenders after release – case study

The committee said government should pilot a reduction in National Insurance contributions for those employers who actively employ ex-offenders.

In turn, DWP should develop practical guidance to help employers recruit ex-offenders – including information on spent and unspent convictions – and should challenge misconceptions regarding employing ex-offenders.

Members welcomed moves to ‘ban the box’ – to remove the initial criminal record disclosure section on job applications – for the majority of civil service roles and says it should be extended to all public bodies, with exclusions only for roles where it would not be appropriate.

Ban the Box does not oblige employers to hire ex-offenders but it increases the chance that they will consider them.

The government should, members said, also consider a statutory “ban the box” for all employers.

Frank Field MP, chair of the committee, said: “It seems to us that former prisoners trying to make a new life for themselves walk over a cliff edge when they walk out the prison door.

“We have known for decades that finding a home and finding a job are absolutely central to preventing re-offending, which costs the criminal justice system alone £15bn a year.

“That is without even beginning to factor in the costs of benefits, healthcare and the human cost of people struggling to reintegrate into society and going back to a life a crime.

“Yet members of this committee have assisted constituents with first-hand experience of failures in rehabilitation: individuals leaving prison with a no fixed accommodation, no financial support and no prospect of finding work.

“Turned out often literally onto the street with a £46 resettlement payment, weeks to wait for most benefits and little meaningful help in or out of prison to make the transition into work, it is no wonder people who have served their time and want to make a new start are reduced to desperation, and feel no alternative but to return to crime.

“Government has announced it will publish a new strategy in early 2017 for getting more ex-offenders into employment and this marks welcome progress. Former offenders who have served their sentence and want to change their lives deserve a second chance.

“Prisons, the government and employers all have a responsibility, and an interest, to help them take it.”

Key facts

  • The current prison population stands at 85, 839: Male – 81, 903,   Female – 3, 936
  • There are over 10 million nominal criminal records held on the Police National Computer
  • Around 50% of people who leave prison reoffend within 12 months: 33% of prisoners with a custodial sentence of over 12 months reoffend within a 12 month period after release;  60% for those serving under 12 months reoffend within a 12 month period after release
  • 49% of prisoners suffer from anxiety and/or depression
  • 32% of prisoners report having a learning difficulty and/or disability
  • 47% of prisoners are estimated to have no school qualifications, including GCSEs
  • 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school
  • 26.5% of prisoners enter employment on release

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