The chair of the education committee, Robert Halfon, has tabled an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill that would allow prisoners to start apprenticeships while serving their sentence.
During an evidence session on Tuesday (14 November) with business leaders whose companies hire ex-offenders, the MP said he was tabling the amendment with the support of the committee, and that it was needed “both as a mechanism to support prisoners’ education but also as a means to develop prisoners’ skills”.
During the session, the committee heard from representatives from several companies that work with and hire ex-offenders, including the shoe repair and key-cutting chain Timpson, the building recruitment firm O’Neill and Brennan, the coffee company Redemption Roasters and the housebuilders Williams Homes. When asked if they could offer an opinion on prisoners being able to hold an employment contract, Tony Hughes, the commercial director for Williams Homes, said he thought it would be very beneficial: “I think it’s wrong that prisoners aren’t offered that opportunity to get on the [apprenticeship system] and gain those skills.”
Sasha Simmonds, head of social value at O’Neill and Brennan, added that by excluding prisoners from apprenticeships, many construction companies are unable to hire prisoners when they leave, and this in turn forces them to initially take less-skilled jobs: “What’s more frustrating is that it stops them from getting better roles. You can start someone on site as a labourer on minimum wage… but you have guys that are brilliant mathematicians that could enter an apprenticeship and be a commercial manager in ten years’ time.”
Currently, prisoners are not able to hold a contract of employment and earn a minimum wage, as per the National Minimum Wage Act 1996, which excludes working prisoners from its scope, and the Prison Act 1952. A recent article by Virginia Mantouvalou, professor of human rights and labour law at University College London, stated that the “average pay for prison service work is £9.60 per week, while it has also been reported that some prisoners work up to 60 hours per week”. Opportunities for employment do not improve much upon leaving, either – according to the Prisoners’ Education Trust, only 7 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women have a job six weeks after leaving prison, and “radical change and a real focus on education is needed if this is going to change”.
In 2016, the former justice secretary David Gauke announced plans to introduce a “prisoner apprenticeship pathway”, which would offer training in custody for specific, guaranteed jobs upon an inmate’s release. Announcing his strategy, Gauke said: “Education in prison needs to be much more closely tailored to the skills that employers in the local area need… That’s why our prisoner apprenticeship pathway is helping link training with employment opportunities by giving a 12-month apprenticeship on release. That’s a guaranteed job and a guaranteed income.”
Unfortunately, these plans never materialised, and prisoners are still unable to access apprenticeships when serving time. During an evidence session in November, ex-prisoners told the committee that they felt apprenticeships would have given them a better start to finding a new job. Femi Laryea-Adekimi told the committee: “100 per cent, apprenticeships should be able to be started in prisons if people want to do an apprenticeship. If someone, for example, wants to do an electrical apprenticeship and learn to be an electrician, what stops them from achieving the practical side within the prison? There is electricity within the prison. They can be supervised. They can be used by the prison to perform those practical parts of their apprenticeship.”
Last week, the government published its Prisons Strategy white paper, which pledges, among other things, to “deliver a step change in education, work-focused skills, training and employment delivered in prison” through a “Prisoner Education Service, which equips prisoners with the numeracy, literacy, skills and qualifications they need to get jobs or apprenticeships after they leave custody”.
However, critics of the white paper have stated that it fails to make clear when the new service will be introduced, as well as concentrating too much on securing job vacancies for those leaving prison, while failing to properly address the need for education, skills and opportunities during their time. Jon Collins, the Prisoners’ Education Trust chief executive, said that this is the “key building block that enables prison leavers to secure employment and urgently needs more funding”.
The bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Commons, meaning it is undergoing detailed scrutiny from a dedicated committee of MPs before it returns to the floor of the house for its report stage and third and final reading. The Prisons Strategy white paper suggests that the government understands the importance of giving prisoners access to education and skills, but only time will tell if the proposed actions have a real effect on the number of prisoners leaving with a job, and the necessary skills to make a long-lasting and fulfilling career.