Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I tabled this Question for Short Debate well before the new Secretary of State, Liz Truss, spoke to the House Of Commons Justice Select Committee in early September. Mine is a narrow question emerging from the proposed prison and courts Bill outlined in the gracious Speech. However, the new Secretary of State made two important statements in her appearance before the Justice Select Committee which have an impact on the broader aspects of my Question. First, she did not commit to bring forward the legislation on prison reform promised in the prison and courts Bill. Secondly, she suggested that no work had been done in her department to introduce the plan of her predecessor, Mr Gove, for major prison reform.
When Secretary of State, Mr Gove told Parliament that legislation was required to bring in these sweeping reforms. As a result, your Lordships’ House gave the prison reform aspects of the Bill a decent and generally welcoming reception in our debate on the gracious Speech in this Chamber in late May.
So the Question I tabled for this debate, which I intend to pursue later, is both overshadowed and diminished by the attitude of the new Secretary of State for Justice. I thought very carefully about calling for the reinstatement of Mr Gove, but my better judgment decided me against it in the end.
At the heart of the then Government’s thinking was a belief that prisons were to be seen not just as places of retribution but as places of rehabilitation, a place to improve life chances, not just recycling facilities for broken individuals who go out through the prison gate and are soon back again—and on multiple occasions, with more than a third of our overcrowded prison population having 15 or more previous convictions.
We have a national proven reoffending rate of 74%, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures in January this year. So I must begin this debate by asking the Minister to clarify the Government’s position. First, is the prison reform agenda outlined by Mr Gove on hold, on the back burner or both? Secondly, when, if at all, will we seen the legislation on this matter promised in the gracious Speech?
Living in hope, as I always do as a positive person, that I will hear a positive response—not least because of the excellent work undertaken by Dame Sally Coates and because of the potential cost to the lives of offenders and to the taxpayer—I will therefore move on to the specific issue of this debate. In recent times, security and punishment have become our penal priorities, and the outcome has been more offenders and a big increase in the prison population, followed by deteriorating prison conditions and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation. Yet from Policy Exchange research we know that prisoners who get a job on release are half as likely to reoffend as those who do not. Naturally, not every offender is suited to self-employment, but entrepreneurs display some significant characteristics which are often shared by offenders. At the top of this list is a desire for autonomy and a willingness to disregard conventions.
Finding work with a criminal record is a very real challenge. Working Links found that only a fraction of employers—18%—is prepared to offer work to one of the 9.2 million people in our country with a criminal record. We have to look wider if we are to reduce the number of unemployed ex-prisoners. At a basic level, self-employment does not discriminate against those with a criminal record, and ex-offenders who are entrepreneurs frequently employ those with a criminal record, thereby reducing reoffending considerably. That is because ex-offender entrepreneurs recognise the commitment they will get from a person who is very grateful for the chance he or she has been given.
Is there interest among ex-offenders in becoming self-employed? The Centre for Entrepreneurs conducted surveys of both prisoners and ex-offenders and uncovered high levels of interest in self-employment. Just under half of all surveyed said they would prefer to be self-employed, and 42% considered starting their own business.
The Government do not have any figures on the reoffending rate among self-employed ex-prisoners, and I ask the Minister whether he thinks they should, because I believe they should. However, globally and here in the UK, there are examples of programmes which deliver entrepreneurship support to prisoners, and all of them point to a much reduced rate of recidivism. The Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program reports a three-year recidivism rate of 7%, compared to an overall USA average of 50%. Other examples in Germany and here in the UK point in the same direction.
Why bother? Reoffending in England and Wales costs the taxpayer £4.5 billion a year. The Social Exclusion Unit has calculated that each reoffender costs the public purse, in the round, £131,000 per annum. Using the costs of a UK programme run by the charity Startup, the Centre for Entrepreneurs calculates that it will cost £82 million a year to support an entrepreneurship programme for every pre-release prisoner. Taking the cautious view, it calculates a reduction in recidivism to 14%, compared to the national average of 46%. This would represent an investment to save in both the short and longer terms.
What needs to change? As well as offering support, the nature and provision of through-the-gate action is critical for success. Key4Life, one of our most successful third-sector organisations in rehabilitation says that its success is built on three principles: first, building an individual offender’s emotional resilience and unlocking negative behaviours that led to conviction; secondly, providing employability support to gain the experience needed to find a job; and, thirdly and crucially, giving ongoing support through the gate to help ex-offenders reintegrate into the community and sustain employment.
None of this is rocket science, but charities are frustrated. They see the benefit of a holistic approach on both sides of the gate, a comprehensive delivery service including accommodation, employment, finance and benefits, but their expertise is not being sufficiently used.
The government structures now in place have just this month received a harsh report from the inspectorates for probation and for prisons. They report that the Government’s strategic vision for through-the-gate services has not been realised. None of the community rehabilitation companies was able to report employment after release or provide any information on the outcomes they had achieved for prisoners receiving through-the-gate services. Vital third-sector organisations are seeing through-the-gate contracts pass them by with a little clarity on what their role is or should be and how they can be resourced for their services.
What would a person coming out of a successful entrepreneurship programme look like? I have met Gina Moffatt. Gina was sentenced to six years in Holloway prison for importing class A drugs. She was convinced her life was over. She told me, “I had no qualifications and a criminal record. How on earth was I ever going to get job?”. Gina now has a business running two cafés in Tottenham. Both serve Afro-Caribbean food and are hubs for the local community. Gina now employs several ex-offenders, many of whom she met in Holloway. She acts as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, which gave her that vital helping hand she needed at the outset.
I have met Michael Corrigan. Michael was sentenced to three years for fraud by abuse of a position of power. On release, he established Prosper 4 with the help of an angel investor. Prosper 4 is an umbrella entity composed of social enterprises committed to reducing reoffending. The company now holds and runs contracts helping ex-offenders. Michael told me, “Prison separates you from everything that is normal—family, friends and work, and picking it all up again is never easy”.
I hope that the Government will recognise that self-employment is an effective pathway towards rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, and that they will support this aim with stable, ongoing funding for the programmes that are required, including a business loan fund for ex-offender businesses. Above all, they should provide the support and mentoring needed to support these would-be entrepreneurs at all stages of their development. Unleashing the entrepreneurial drive innate in many offenders will require more than just a little advice and education before leaving them to their own devices. Ensuring they get the support they need is a sure route to reducing reoffending. It will give ex-prisoners the fresh start they desperately need—and surely deserve.
My Lords, I congratulate my colleague and noble friend Lord German on securing this important debate. Turning offenders into entrepreneurs has been an aspiration of numerous interest groups and charities for some time, some of which believe that many involved in criminal activity share skill sets that would be adaptable to the workplace, particularly in setting themselves up as entrepreneurs.
Not all entrepreneurs are millionaires. A market trader, a mechanic or even a hopeful retailer can all fit the definition. However, many offenders are consistently greeted with reasons why they cannot achieve. Entrepreneurship allows them to believe in themselves and in a better life for their families, and enhances their focus, moving it away from the unlawful to the productive.
At present, all training for offenders falls into two categories: custodial or community. I will deal with custodial first. This is presently delivered within prisons under OLASS—Offender Learning and Skill Service—managed by the Skills Funding Agency. There are four contracted providers in England and Wales. The first three are FE colleges: Milton Keynes, Weston and Manchester. The fourth is A4e, a private provider. The OLASS phase 4 contract values for 2014-15 and 2015-16 are unavailable. The funding is per unit of qualification, with funding paid retrospectively on attainment.
However, the figures for 2013-14 indicate that the total contract value was more than £131.5 million, with the biggest share of £21.3 million going to the north-west, where the Manchester College is the deliverer. The smallest—£6.4 million—goes to the south central area, where the deliverer is Milton Keynes College. This is a considerable total sum available for offender training. From 17 July, this funding will come under the direct control of each respective prison governor, instead of being delivered by OLASS. This places additional burdens on governors as they become fully accountable for prison education.
The possible implications of this will be a lack of continuity in provision when offenders are moved between prisons. Some training provisions are available only at certain prisons. For example, bricklaying is available at HM Prison Portland but not in HM Prison Guys Marsh. Both are category C prisons. If this training is available only at selected facilities, the implication is the likelihood of increasing the disparity in provision that already exists between prisons. Finally, it has the potential to encourage prisons to offer quick-fix, short courses to guarantee or skew education outcomes.
On training delivered in the community, there are currently three types of community offender training: post release, under licence or supervision; non-custodial sentences, including suspended sentences; and community payback. Up to 20% of community payback hours may be accounted for by any form of formal training. The process for offenders accessing training is not straightforward.
Probation offender managers or education training and employment officers—ETEs—within the state and private sector probation provisions identify the learning and development needs of offenders. Referrals are then made to private providers or colleges with access to funding in adult FE provisions. Training is funded by the Skills Funding Agency, which may or may not be part-funded by the European Social Fund. Funding is subject to the client meeting SFA criteria: unemployed or lacking skills such as English or maths.
Additional guidance may be available in line with local authority provisions for small businesses or small business advisers within banking services. It must be remembered that provision of business advice is not a statutory provision for probation service providers. In terms of the availability of entrepreneurship for offenders, one of the biggest barriers to employment is the requirement to disclose convictions in line with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. This, combined with lengthy periods out of work due to sentences, means that they are facing an uphill struggle in returning to employed work as soon as they leave the gate.
At present, some but not all prison education providers are offering “be your own boss” courses to selected prisoners. This is a short course, usually one week, and concentrates on interpersonal soft skills and decision-making rather than the essentials of business planning and management. These courses serve as a solid introduction to the personal skills, motivation and processes that would be required to take the next step. What is now needed to follow this is business planning and financial training to supplement the soft and trade skills. Does the Minister agree that this is the case and can he give assurances that resources will be made available for this to happen?
Nevertheless, there are opportunities. There is a range of existing vocational education programmes, varying in availability from prison to prison, that would suit a lead-up to entrepreneurial training. They include: catering, barbering and hairdressing, and construction skills—bricklaying, painting and decorating, and carpentry, all of which are currently in short supply. The only limitation for the learner is the absence of experience outside a secure environment.
Many of these courses will be completed in 14 weeks of full-time study, but will qualify the learner only to level 2 GCSE grades A to C. This, coupled with an absence of any real world or customer-facing experience, will not make them an ideal candidate for small business loans or investment. Groups such as Key4Life—there are numerous others—are supporting offenders from gate to employment and self-employment. They offer mentoring programmes, apprenticeships, training and development. This provides the necessary support to develop the individual while allowing access to real-world working environments.
However, there are issues and barriers to entrepreneurship. The Prisoners’ Education Trust has figures indicating that only 12% of prisoners are assessed as possessing literacy skills at level 2; only 8.5% of prisoners are assessed as possessing maths skills at level 2; and 62% of male and 57% of female prisoners have personality disorders. It is widely reported that as many as 35% of prisoners suffer some sort of drug dependency, with 6% reported as having developed a dependency after entering prison.
Self-employment and entrepreneurship can serve as a gateway to a productive working life free from reoffending. However, it requires the individual to be given the opportunity to develop a skill set to an appropriate level of competence, which can then be taken from a provision of services to running a business. Does the Minister agree that this could be supported through temporary release or business mentoring via the probation services, third-party providers and charities?
In summary, entrepreneurial development, if supported educationally as well as financially, proposes real-world benefits for both the offender and society through reduced recidivism, improved lifestyle and an increase in the individual contribution to the economy and wider society. It should be noted that many training providers and prisons would be very keen to deliver training in this area, but some prison students will require support to gain basic functional skills. This is an area in which prison education staff are very experienced, and it is essential for the success of any entrepreneurial venture that these foundation elements are addressed at the earliest possible opportunity. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this very important subject.
My Lords, in winding up this debate for the Liberal Democrats I am aware that there has been a fair degree of unanimity in the speakers before me, since only Liberal Democrats have so far spoken. I join my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville in congratulating my noble friend Lord German on securing this debate and bringing this issue before the House, and I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the Minister have to say.
This debate takes place against a background of a well-documented and well-recognised crisis in our prison system. I have frequently spoken, along with many other noble Lords, about the need for fundamental reforms in our prisons, sometimes to the apparent irritation of the Minister. Yet we are all agreed on the fundamentals. We all agree about the need to cut prisoner numbers by making more use of rehabilitative community sentences; to improve, indeed transform, the squalid conditions in our prisons; to eliminate overcrowding, so that custodial facilities hold only the numbers of inmates for which they were designed; and radically to increase staffing levels, not just to exercise adequate control, but to provide far more purposeful activity for inmates and drastically reduce the hours they spend locked away in their cells to levels that are humane and sustainable. If these improvements could be made, they would cut dramatically the disgraceful levels of violence in our prisons and would have a marked effect on decreasing reoffending levels, which are far too high. The prison reforms proposed by Mr Gove promised to start addressing these issues, and I join my noble friend Lord German in asking the Minister what is to happen to them with the new Secretary of State in place. I make no apology for spending a little time on this depressing background because it is, frankly, inimical to improvement in offender training of all sorts that prisons should be in this state and I invite the Minister to say how far he agrees that conditions in our prisons, in particular the lack of staffing and the lack of purposeful activity, frustrate the provision of adequate education and training.
For most prisoners, purposeful activity fundamentally means education and training. This debate takes place against the background of Dame Sally Coates’s excellent review. That review started from the limited educational attainment of most prisoners. My noble friend Lady Bakewell has given the figures. Dame Sally’s starting point was to put education at the heart of the prison system. She rightly pointed out that:
“If education is the engine of social mobility, it is also the engine of prisoner rehabilitation”.
She emphasised the need for high-quality vocational training and employability skills to prepare individuals for jobs on release from prison, but she also stressed the importance of enterprise and self-employment support and training.
At a purely practical level, if offenders on release are equipped with the necessary skills it may, as my noble friend Lord German pointed out, often be easier to take up self-employment as a way of securing gainful occupation than to find employment with employers elsewhere, given the difficulty of persuading employers to give jobs to ex-offenders on release from prison.
There are, of course, many employers who as a matter of policy provide work to ex-offenders on release. Among them are Timpson, the shoe repairers, which has a prison recruitment scheme and has had considerable success in attracting and retaining ex-offenders who have settled with them to long-term and successful employment, and many have gone on to success in self-employment as well. There is also Gleeds, the construction company, which has made a special point of finding jobs for ex-offenders on release and which has campaigned to “ban the box”, meaning the criminal records tick-box on employment application forms, which prevents many finding new jobs. I will be interested to know the Minister’s attitude to job application forms.
Employment with helpful and energetic employers may be the best way of equipping former offenders with the skills and confidence to start up in self-employment. However, many will try starting up in self-employment after prison, but it is clear that it takes particular confidence for a prisoner, even a skilled one, to start a business. An ex-offender leaving prison faces many challenges in any case in finding his place in his community and re-establishing relationships with family and friends, so it is a real challenge to set up in any form of a business at the same time.
In this context, Dame Sally’s recommendations on developing mentors in prison may point a way to enabling prisoners to benefit from the experience of other prisoners. I hope that the community rehabilitation companies providing supervision to ex-offenders on release will play a part in building up networks of possible mentors following release who might help newly released prisoners through the first, very difficult, stages of setting up in business. In this context I add to the points made by both my noble friends about the need for a rehabilitation loan fund to provide the vital initial finance and for the co-ordination of training and funding within prisons, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bakewell. Training in business skills and financial management is also necessary.
A lot can be done in prison too with imagination and encouragement from the prison authorities. An example is the Clink Charity’s restaurants, which have been a startling success. The Clink Charity started at HMP High Down in Surrey and now runs restaurants in Brixton, Cardiff and HMP Styal in Cheshire, which is a woman’s prison. The restaurants are very successful and are run by prisoners for the public. The men and women working there are training for their City & Guilds qualifications in food service and preparation. A mentoring service operates following release which is designed to help them find employment in the field. It has also opened a horticultural garden in HMP High Down and another in another woman’s prison, HMP Send in Surrey, where the prisoners train in horticulture and grow the produce for the four Clink Charity restaurants. At HMP Send, they also rear chickens and provide the restaurants with eggs. The Clink Charity boasts an 87.5% success rate in reducing reoffending. The point of all this is that there is a link between training, recruiting, learning the skills to run a business, mentoring and, finally, either finding employment or opening a business in the community on release. But it all depends on people with the imagination, drive and desire to help encouraging prisoners on their way.
So far I have concentrated on education in prisons. However, it is very important, if we are to achieve our aim of reducing the number of offenders sent to prison, that we also develop the potential of community sentences for providing education, including training in entrepreneurship. The provision for rehabilitation activity requirements, which may be imposed as part of a community order as a result of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, provides a useful and effective vehicle for training offenders in the community. Some CRCs already offer activities over a wide range. Warwickshire and Mercia CRC provides a care farm skills programme at Willowdene Farm. The programme is set over 25 seven-hour days in a 14-week period. It offers courses specialising in mechanics, woodwork, IT, plumbing, forestry, animal welfare and agriculture—all areas in which self-employment is possible. It aims to prepare offenders to be work-ready and achieve two nationally recognised qualifications by the end of the programme. It works with offenders at high risk of reoffending and deals with those with a history of substance abuse. The London CRC helps offenders to develop basic skills in literacy and numeracy, and gives them training which might lead NVQ awards. It also helps ex-offenders to find employment, assisting with such things as CV writing and interview techniques. However, I suspect that more imaginative schemes, such as the West Mercia farm scheme or the Clink restaurants, are more likely to produce long-term benefits, not just for those involved at the time but also for those who might mentor later. What steps do the Minister and his department propose to encourage development by the CRCs and within prisons of the sort of schemes that I have mentioned? We are a long way off. The central point that I make is that we have to improve the system to give training a chance to flourish. Achieve that we must.
My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord German and Lord Marks, have referred to their regret, which I share, about the departure of Mr Gove, who made what seemed to me a very promising start, in contrast to the dreadful years under his predecessor, in looking at the position of prisoners. It is a case of being gone but not forgiven, I suppose, by the party opposite, or at any rate its leadership.
Concerns about the Prison Service which form the background to this timely debate have been raised with troubling frequency during the six years that I have served in this House, and before. It is perhaps tedious, but nevertheless necessary, to remind ourselves of the size of the prison population—it encompasses some 86,000 people at any one time—of the problems of overcrowding and understaffing, of violence and drug abuse, and of the high rates of re-offending, all of which were touched on during Questions this week, as they have been with depressing regularity over the years. It is as well to recall, too, the high proportion of prisoners with one or more mental health disorders, and low levels of literacy and numeracy and of any engagement with further education.
Today’s welcome debate draws attention to one aspect of penal policy that has been the subject of discussion and of some developments in recent years. However, we need to be mindful that while promoting entrepreneurship may help some prisoners to return to society and lead a more useful and rewarding existence, just as in society as a whole, the majority are likely to derive more benefit from being equipped with the basic skills, enhanced wherever possible, to take their place in the labour market as well-trained contenders for employment.
A report of the Prisoners’ Education Trust in 2013 stressed the need to promote both employability skills and what it termed soft skills, such as a positive attitude, communication skills and reliability and, while referring to self-employment, stressed the experience of three prisons in helping offenders to acquire particular skills in demand in particular trades and areas. The business department published its Evaluation of Enterprise Pilots in Prisons last October, since when Dame Sally Coates’s review in May this year provided an interesting picture, to be seen alongside the CentreForum report entitled Transforming Rehabilitation? Prison Education: Analysis and Options, published in March. The BIS report highlighted the need for IT access, and the Coates report referred to the glass ceiling beyond level 2 of standard vocational qualifications, noting that a mere 200 achieved level 3 or above in 2014-15, via the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service, or OLASS, an 85% reduction from 2013, the last year before loans were introduced to pay for courses. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, rightly referred to concerns over the fragmentation of OLASS’s role under the Government’s present policy. This was even worse than the 42% decline in prisoners taking higher education courses with the Open University after 2011-12 when they had to start self-funding at a cost of £2,700 a module, or £14,800 for a degree.
Dame Sally suggested in a cautionary note that, in relation to the BIS enterprise pilot scheme promoting start-ups by prisoners with support and loans,
“participants needed to be carefully selected to ensure they were able to engage effectively”.
In other words, she implied that there is some scope for entrepreneurship and self-employment, but it will not necessarily be applicable to the majority of prisoners.
The BIS report covered only 58 prisoners from four prisons and noted a lack of connection between providers and the DWP on the issue of benefits. Importantly, and directly relevant to the terms of the motion under debate, BIS analysed the start-ups and loans secured by prisoners looking to progress to self-employment on release. Of 114 prisoners in the north-east, two started businesses without funding; one failed to obtain a loan and another’s application is pending. In a southern prison, of 40 who participated, two began start-ups with the aid of funding, and 19 had loans approved in 2014 and 2015. So the picture is not entirely convincing that, even with support of training, people will necessarily make it into self-employment or business.
CentreForum’s report affirms these worrying trends. The percentages of institutions needing improvement in education rose from 50% to 75% between 2011 and 2015, while the proportion engaged in prison education courses dropped from 42% in 2008-9 to 23% in 2014. At the basic level below level 2, participation rates improved but, worryingly, the rise was much higher in subjects other than English and maths, which were the Government’s priorities, having regard to the low levels of literacy and numeracy, clearly key to future employment prospects. CentreForum also points to Ofsted reports showing a steep decline in performance ratings, with the proportion of findings of inadequacy or requiring improvement rising from a bad enough 50% in 2011-12 to 72% in 2014-15. Imagine the outcry if Ofsted’s reports on schools had followed a similar trajectory or reached such heights of inadequacy. The report summarises the position as indicating,
“consistently poor quality provision and a decline in quality over recent years”.
All this is consistent with the NOMS finding of a “stark decline” in purposeful activity outcomes and educational quality, in turn reflected in the stagnation of reoffending rates since 2009. We seem locked into a downward spiral of declining opportunities and outcomes. What appears to be lacking, apart from the basic requirement of adequate funding to secure a safe environment for prisoners and staff, is a properly integrated approach to penal policy across government. This needs to involve the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the departments of health, business, and education, and the courts. It needs much greater sharing of experience, perhaps by extensive use of peer review, and it needs a determined effort to reduce prison numbers without which airy aspirations of a rehabilitation revolution, or worthy and desirable objectives, such as increasing entrepreneurship and self-employment by prisoners, are unlikely to be achievable. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to persuade his colleagues in the department that these are achievable objectives but that they require a degree of commitment that is yet to appear in government policy.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for securing this debate. The Government are committed to ensuring that prisons are places of reform and we recognise that training in entrepreneurship can help to provide offenders with the skills that they need to become productive, contributing members of society. Although entrepreneurship may help some—I will return to this point, which has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham—it is questionable whether it will assist the majority, who very often require rather more basic skills in order to achieve any form of employability.
Let me first answer the question that the noble Lord, Lord German, asked. In terms of the Prison Rules, rule 32 provides:
“Educational classes shall be arranged at every prison”.
That is our policy. It is also our policy that prison governors should be empowered to decide what that education offer should be and should then be held to account for what is achieved. We do not regard that as fragmentation but as a means of innovation.
Before discussing the question of entrepreneurship in more detail, however, I mention briefly the reforms already under way in our prison system. With respect to the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord German, the present Justice Secretary has made clear her plans to drive through one of the most far-reaching prison reforms in a generation. Those offenders in prison have committed a crime for which prison is the rightful punishment but, at the end of their sentence, almost all prisoners will need to reintegrate back into the community. Currently, almost half of prisoners reoffend within the first 12 months of release. In 2010, it was estimated that this cycle of reoffending was costing the economy up to £13.5 billion a year. I believe that all noble Lords and the noble Baroness acknowledged the scale of the problem that exists. The Government are committed to ending this cycle and ensuring that prisoners use their time in prison to reform.
First, we need to make prisons safe—safe for learning and safe for reform. The rising levels of violence against prisoners and indeed staff, as well as an increase in self-harm and self-inflicted deaths, are not acceptable and require immediate attention. We are investing £14 million to provide more than 400 staff in prisons to help address increasing levels of violence and provide much-needed, individual support for prisoners. The Government are also investing £1.3 billion to modernise and reform the prison estate, which will have appropriate facilities for learning, training and the reform of prisoners.
We realise that many prisoners have led challenging lives and may have missed out on the opportunity to learn. For example, nearly one-third struggle with learning difficulties or disabilities. Indeed, the noble Baroness gave a number of figures with regard to those who suffer from various disabilities or difficulties, be they mental health, learning difficulties or otherwise. The prevalence of drug problems is also well known. More than half of the prison population is unable to read or write to a basic standard. Even more have similarly poor mathematics skills. We need to utilise the time spent in prison ensuring that prisoners engage in purposeful activity, so that they can contribute to society upon their release.
While there are some excellent examples of education in prison, we would of course like to see more consistency. Dame Sally Coates’s review of education in prison, published earlier this year and mentioned already, set a clear agenda for education reform. Prisoners are often not being given the appropriate skills and knowledge needed to find jobs, while prison governors are hampered by an overly bureaucratic system. We are determined to improve prison education to help prisoners turn their lives around. The Government intend to change the way that we run prisons, so there is an unremitting emphasis on safety and reform. We want prisons to be places of hard work and high ambition, with incentives for prisoners to learn. We want prison staff to prioritise employment opportunities. To do this, we will put the tools to drive this change into the hands of those on the front line. Prison governors must be empowered to innovate and find better ways of reforming offenders in a system geared towards innovation and local partnerships.
Following the recommendations in Dame Sally Coates’s report, we have already given prison governors greater autonomy over the education curriculum. As of 1 October, governors have been able to offer courses that do not necessarily lead to an accreditation, should they deem it in their prisoners’ best interests. This will give governors greater immediate flexibility to respond to the differing, and indeed often complex, needs of prisoners. For example, a governor could choose to commission a focused preparation for a self-employment programme for those nearing release who have shown a keen interest in pursuing this option, or an enterprise-themed programme aimed at initial engagement of “hard-to-reach” offenders who are furthest from the labour market.
Sixteen million hours of work were delivered in prisons during 2015-16. There are also significant numbers of prisoners in other learning, vocational training or in-prison work opportunities that contribute to the effective running of a prison. Supporting offenders into meaningful employment is a vital aspect of this Government’s approach. I am conscious that many members of your Lordships’ House have detailed knowledge of prison education and employment opportunities—this has been exhibited this evening—but it was, I have to say, a surprise to me in taking up this portfolio to find that a significant number of our prisons have railway tracks within their grounds, albeit stopping short of the gates. These are used to train prisoners in track maintenance, delivering a trade-standard NVQ level 2 qualification and the necessary rail safety and other skills, so that they secure paid employment on key infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail, once they are released.
We want to see more work in prisons leading to jobs on the outside. For example, a scaffolding workshop has just opened at Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton in an excellent collaboration involving Land Securities and Bounce Back. The first four graduates of the programme have gone into full-time work and there is a waiting list of employers anxious to employ the next 20 prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, alluded to Clinks and the running of four fine dining restaurants. He perhaps omitted to mention that the restaurant at Her Majesty’s Prison Cardiff has been voted 10th best fine dining restaurant in the United Kingdom and a graduate of the Clink restaurant at Brixton has gone on to be a sous chef at one of London’s leading hotels.
More private sector companies are employing ex-offenders. However, we are keen to increase the number of employers who can provide valuable vocational work for offenders in prison and who are able to offer them employment on release. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, mentioned some who have done splendid work. We want more businesses to work with us to give prisoners a second chance. Those who already do tell us that offenders are often some of their most loyal and committed employees. The National Offender Management Service works closely with the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending to ensure that there is a pool of employers willing to employ offenders. A significant number of schemes are in place locally but of course we want to see more. Giving governors autonomy over decisions made in prisons will allow them to target training and work in prisons to match more closely the needs of a local labour market.
We know that the majority of prisoners want to work and that, in the context of keeping themselves occupied, pay, for example, is not an issue. We also know that getting prisoners into employment is a key factor in reducing reoffending—a point already made by noble Lords—but many face barriers when trying to enter employment as employers may be reluctant to hire. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, alluded to Ban the Box; the Government encourage all employers to look at their recruitment practices to ensure that ex-offenders are considered on their merits and not on their criminal records, through options such as banning the box. Indeed, the former Prime Minister announced government support for Business in the Community’s Ban the Box campaign. The Civil Service will be banning the box from the initial recruitment stage except for those jobs that have a specific security requirement. The Ministry of Justice, at headquarters, already bans the box. So some progress has been made in that regard
Turning to the theme of this debate, enterprise skills and entrepreneurship, I should make it clear that when I refer to the training in entrepreneurship that is currently offered in prison, I am referring to two separate things. First, there are the courses that we offer on preparing prisoners to start a business venture and to aid their understanding of business enterprise. One can be entrepreneurial without being self-employed and these courses are not necessarily delivered with the hope that the prisoner will become self-employed as a result. Rather, these courses can provide prisoners with translatable skills for any kind of employment. For example, a prisoner enrolled on such a course may learn that they need to go back and improve their maths skills before starting their own business. This might lead them to getting basic qualifications they would not otherwise have sought. Or perhaps a prisoner will realise that they must first go out and get some work experience to prepare them for having a business of their own. These aims are equally as beneficial as encouraging a prisoner to enter self-employment directly on release.
Secondly, there is the specific support we offer to help offenders into self-employment. These courses are popular with prisoners and we recognise the value for prisoners that becoming self-employed has, as it can help overcome some of the barriers that have been mentioned with regard to securing employment. On these courses you may find a prisoner who has already taken part in a business enterprise course, or a prisoner who has been studying on a vocational course, such as plumbing or barbering, which have been mentioned, who will then seek to use the skills they have learned to set up their own business.
In 2015, an enterprise pilot was run by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with the aim of helping to reduce reoffending and helping individuals progress to self-employment, or other employment if more suited, on release. While it is too early to assess the impact of this pilot on reoffending, we learned valuable lessons that will help governors in deciding what type of enterprise provision to commission for their prisons. For example, for enterprise provision to be effective, it is important that prisoner learners are engaged and keen to participate, that there is improved communication between those delivering training in custody, those providing support to prisoners on release and those supporting prisoners’ engagement in custody—as the noble Lord, Lord German, observed in his opening remarks, this does not stop at the gateway of the prison, but has to go further if it is to succeed—and that therefore further research is considered and planned.
When considering self-employment options, we must remember that start-ups have a high rate of failure and, certainly, we do not want to set prisoners up to fail. For many prisoners already in debt, accessing the necessary start-up loan is impossible. It is no use equipping prisoners to start up their own business if, on release, they find they are prohibited from accessing the resources needed to achieve their goal. Work must first be done, therefore, to address prisoners’ existing debt issues, setting up a payment plan if necessary, before any plans for self-employment can take place. This is a staged process. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Rather, a holistic approach is required in order to encourage self-employment, with a concerted focus on partnership working. We also need to ensure that if prisoners seek the route of self-employment, they receive the Through The Gate support to which the noble Lord, Lord German, referred.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised a number of questions. She too mentioned the barrier of the requirement to disclose convictions. I hope I have explained that the Government wish to encourage schemes such as Ban the Box that might reduce, or displace, any such barrier. She also mentioned the low levels of literacy skills encountered among those in our prisons. That is where some of the fundamental problems lie. We need to increase that level of educational attainment, which is fundamental to making progress in this area.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, suggested that conditions in prisons frustrate the provision of education and training. They do not frustrate it, because education and training are going on, but of course they make it more difficult. That is one reason why we are committed to spending £1.3 billion on a new prison estate that will be far better equipped to provide the sort of education and training that can reduce recidivism among the prison population.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, alluded to the need also to look at this across government. We accept that this is not just a case of prison reform in isolation. We have to look at the health issues, particularly the mental health issues, which afflict such a large proportion of the prison population, and the drug issues that also afflict such a large proportion of the prison population. We also have to look at prison overcrowding. However, I say again that that is now being addressed by the determination to produce a new and effective prison estate for the future.
In conclusion, we intend to modernise and reform the way that we run our prisons. We intend to help deliver a safer and more secure environment, because only with a safer and more secure environment will there be the opportunity for education and training to take root. We understand the ambition of some prisoners to become self-employed but recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that that may be an effective route for some but not for all. We have to have regard to the totality of the prison population. But rather than imposing a top-down, centralised policy, the Government are giving governors the autonomy they need to best meet the needs of their prisoners to ensure that they obtain fulfilling, purposeful employment, or even the opportunity of self-employment, on release. I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I hope that I have been able to address their questions and concerns to some extent.