A potential shortage of workers after Brexit could be offset by using prisoners in trades including construction and agriculture, the justice secretary has said.
David Gauke said a feared skills gap should be seen as an “opportunity” by both inmates and employers.
“Leaving the European Union is also likely to have an impact on the workforce in sectors such as catering, construction and agriculture,” he added, as he outlined the Ministry of Justice’s new Education and Employment strategy.
“By expanding the use of release on temporary licence (ROTL) for work, more prisoners will not only be able to get a foot through the door to sectors like these, but employers will be better able to fill short-term skills gaps whilst also developing potential permanent employees for the longer term. That in my eyes is a ‘win-win’.”
Mr Gauke, who announced rehabilitation as one of his key priorities when taking his post in January, said the government was hiring vetted ex-offenders in the civil service and had stopped asking about criminal convictions upfront in the recruitment process.
He called for a “cultural change” in wider employment to help drive down reoffending that costs the UK economy £15bn a year.
Mr Gauke cited figures showing that only 17 per cent of ex-offenders are in PAYE work a year after coming out of jails and half of employers say they would even consider employing a former prisoner.
The justice secretary, who worked as a solicitor before entering politics, said that although prison should serve as punishment for criminals, it must also be a turning point in their lives.
Speaking at HMP Isis in the south east London borough of Greenwich, he added: “The evidence is clear: if a prisoner gets a job after coming out of prison, they are less likely to commit more crime.
“Ensuring ex-offenders come out of prison, not onto benefits but into work, reduces the financial burden on taxpayers and the welfare state.”
A new organisation called the New Futures Network has been set up to generate job opportunities from local employers.
A former offender called Luke, who now works in construction for Keltbray, said it is easy to fall back into a life of crime if you are released with “no prospects and nothing to lose”.
“After my training in prison I’m self-sufficient,” he added. “I don’t have to rely on anyone, I don’t have to claim benefits, I can pay my own rent. It’s a good feeling.
“I think for someone who has been in my situation, they’ve had a lot of time to reflect on where they want to go in life. People like us are committed to prove a point and work hard.”
The MoJ said new research indicates that temporarily releasing prisoners to work was associated with “small but significant” reductions in re-offending rates.
But the use of ROTL, which sees prisoners released for short periods following extensive risk assessments that normally come near the end of their sentence, has dropped by more than a third over four years.
In the same period, assaults and self-harm in prisons have rocketed amid riots over poor conditions and drug smuggling.
Campaigners have suggested prison officers feared using the ROTL scheme because of criticism over a small numbers of cases that go wrong.
The government emphasised that inmates taking part were thoroughly risk-assessed and “failures” in the scheme make up less than 0.1 per cent of the total.
Activities offered in many prisons have been reduced by understaffing, forcing officers to lock up inmates for up to 23 hours a day with no access to education or work.
Mr Gauke acknowledged that too many “low-level qualifications” that did not provide useful skills for either prisoners or employers were being offered.
The government is expanding a scheme offering suitable inmates a 12-month paid apprenticeship on release and handing governors full control over education in their prisons from next April.
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.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said Mr Gauke’s suggestion would be hampered by prisons’ failure to get people out of their cells and into education and training.
“Unless prisons can function like real-life places of work – ensuring that people are up and out in the morning, having had a shower and some breakfast, to arrive on time to do a full day’s work for a full day’s pay and pay tax – then what will happen is what has always happened: people might be able to get jobs on release, but they will struggle to keep them,” she added.
The government has said prison officer numbers are at their highest in five years, with more than 3,000 new hires due to be at work by the summer and another 1,500 candidates to start training courses.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the new strategy was full of “good intentions” that could make a big difference to inmates’ families and communities.
“But we have heard many of these promises before,” he added. “The government must take this opportunity to show it means business. It must deliver a National Insurance holiday for employers, not just consider it. It must get thousands more prisoners into workplace release on temporary licence, not just consult about it.”
Richard Burgon MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “While prisoners are stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day due to severe understaffing, soaring violence and a prisons crisis driven by Tory cuts, then this is yet another prison policy that, sadly, looks set to fail.