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Employing the ‘unemployable’

As the rules around employing people on temporary release from prison are relaxed, the talent pool is widening for fashion retailers.

“A lot of people who end up in prison have had very difficult lives, but they are not all hardened criminals,” says Sir John Timpson, as he explains the decision to recruit more than 600 ex-offenders to work in his family shoe repair and locksmith business. “They tend to be more loyal and hardworking than most, because they are grateful for the opportunity.”

Timpson’s ex-offender employment programme, set up in 2002, has earned a lot of respect in the retail industry. Now, changes to the rules around employing offenders on temporary release from prison could result in more businesses following its lead. 

On 28 May, the Ministry of Justice announced that it will relax the rules for offenders on temporary release, to help improve their future job prospects. Release on temporary licence was previously restricted to offenders in certain categories of prison or nearing the end of their sentence. Now, all inmates in open prisons and those eligible for open conditions in women’s prisons will be allowed to engage in paid work after passing a risk assessment.

Interest in employing ex-offenders is rising across the country, not just in the fashion retail industry. The Ministry of Justice says more than 500 businesses around the UK have now registered to work with prisons, across a variety of sectors.  They are helped by the New Futures Network, which launched in October 2018 as part of the Prison Service to build partnerships between prisons and employers. The network will have an employment broker in every geographical prison group by July.

The employers that have been public about it have received overwhelmingly positive news coverage and public reaction

Jessica Rose, Business in the Community

The changes are part of the government’s efforts to reduce re-offending rates. Ministry of Justice research shows ex-offenders in employment are up to nine percentage points less likely to commit further crime. Yet only 17% are in paid work a year after coming out of prison, and only half of employers say they would consider employing an ex-offender.

Jessica Rose, campaign manager at not-for-profit organisation Business in the Community, which promotes responsible business, says attitudes to employing people with criminal convictions are changing: “The employers that have been public about it have received overwhelmingly positive news coverage and public reaction to what they’re doing.”

Yet for retailers, ex-offenders and those on temporary licence are still a largely untapped resource. 

“We know anecdotally that retailers are concerned about what customers and staff members might think about people with criminal convictions coming in,” says Rose. “People tend to assume the worst.” 

However, Drapers has learned that several high street fashion chains are launching trial programmes targeted at people on temporary licence.

“It is absolutely tragic how society is perpetuating the cycle of prison, release into homelessness, drugs, crime and back into prison for these people,” says the CEO of one fashion multiple, which has recently employed two people released on temporary licence to work in its stores. “We’ve put a lot of effort into this, and we’ve now got to a great place to launch our first trials over the coming months.” 

Rose says employment of people with criminal convictions often goes on behind closed doors, but Business in the Community is lobbying for this to become part of mainstream recruitment practices. Its “Ban the Box” campaign encourages employers to remove the criminal conviction tick box from application forms, so ex-offenders are not put off at the first hurdle.

Another fashion chain has offered employment to three women on release from prison, but is also reluctant to speak on the record until the scheme is more established. 

Timpson argues that more retailers should employ ex-offenders, on temporary release or after they leave prison: “You’re helping people to get back on track, and not many others are looking to employ them, so you’ve got the pick – it’s the easiest way to find new people.”

Marks & Spencer is celebrating 15 years of its Marks & Start employability programme, which provides pre-employment training and work experience placements to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the homeless, former members of the armed services and ex-offenders. More than 20,000 people have participated since it was launched in 2004, and around half have gone on to employment with M&S.

It is absolutely tragic how society is perpetuating the cycle of prison, release into homelessness, drugs, crime and back into prison

CEO, high street multiple

Claire Maydew, diversity and inclusion manager at M&S, tells Drapers: “We’ve found people coming through are incredibly loyal, work very hard and give great service to customers. A lot of our internal awards go to people who came through the programme.” 

M&S works with three organisations to run Marks & Start: Business in the Community, The Prince’s Trust and Remploy. The partner organisation screens candidates and provides pre-employment support, and the placements last for two to four weeks. 

“We provide on-the-job coaching and training,” explains Maydew. “It is about giving them experience so they can decide if a job in retail is for them or not. We provide constant feedback.”

The partner organisations offer post-placement support. If someone is offered a job at M&S at the end, they are given the same internal training and support as any other member of staff, plus six months of follow-up support from the external organisation.

You have to work with a prison that will work with you, and some prisons are better to work with than others

Sir John Timpson

“Even if they don’t take the job [at M&S], it is often a springboard to get a job in another field,” says Maydew. “They can say, ‘I committed to four weeks, I gathered these skills.’”

However, Marks & Start does not accept people on temporary release.

“On temporary release they can only do one day a week for a number of months,” explains Maydew. “Our model is a block period. We’ve found a model we’re able to use across different organisations. For our stores to implement it, they need to follow roughly the same process. Release on temporary licence is a very different way of working.”

Timpson currently employs about 40 people released on temporary licence, but most of them have less than 16 weeks of their sentence left to serve. 

Sir John Timpson warns: “It does mean you have to work with a prison that will work with you, and some prisons are better to work with than others.”

Business in the Community’s Rose agrees that working with the prison sector can be difficult: “It can take a long time to get something up and running.” 

However, she points out that there are several not-for-profit groups that support ex-offenders seeking employment, such as Working Chance, Nacro, The Prince’s Trust and Unlock.

Timpson emphasises that retailers should not let the complexities put them off: “It’s a learning curve – you will make mistakes to start with. That’s not to say you’ll get someone who’ll re-offend while with you, but it’s a challenge for anyone leaving prison, especially if they’ve been in for a period of time. It’s quite a hostile world to them – most people don’t act kindly to those with a prison record.”

Despite the challenges, neither Timpson, M&S, nor any of the retailers Drapers spoke to, reported a problem with re-offending while in employment.

Maydew explains that M&S carries out an internal risk assessment before employing someone who has a criminal conviction, as does its charity partner. “There is always a risk when you recruit someone,” she adds.

Although it presents some unique obstacles, with the growing support that is in place, there has never been a better time for fashion retailers to introduce employment programmes for those leaving prison. 


Attitudes to employing ex-offenders

  • 81% of employers that employ ex-offenders agree it has helped their business
  • Two-thirds of companies that employ ex-offenders would recommend others to do the same
  • 79% of people think that businesses employing ex-offenders are making a positive contribution to society
  • Three out of four people would be comfortable buying from a business that employs ex-offenders

Source: YouGov, May 2019


How to employ ex-offenders

If you are considering employing ex-offenders, there are steps to take: 

  • Ensure the programme has the full support of both the prison governor and your senior staff.
  • Nominate someone within the business as the key contact for overseeing the programme, and ensure the prison does the same.
  • Ask to visit the prison to understand better how it works, and the pressures and constraints staff and prisoners are under.
  • Discuss with the prison which offences would be unacceptable for employment in your organisation.
  • Review your recruitment processes to ensure they do not exclude former offenders – for example, some forms of ID, such as proof of address, may be difficult to obtain – and, if possible, this should be taken out of the process.
  • Do you require references as part of the recruitment process? Would you accept a reference from a prison tutor in lieu of an employment or personal reference? 
  • Leaving prison can be a stressful time for a prisoner and it is vital that they are offered support through this transition period. Discuss this with the prison before release and set up a system for support and communication.

Source: Prison Reform Trust





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