Prisoners should be offered apprenticeships while incarcerated to help them gain skills for jobs upon release
It is little wonder that reoffending rates are so high in this country – at around 42 per cent – when the odds of finding a job are stacked against prison leavers.
It really doesn’t take much thinking about. For anyone to turn a leaf after years behind bars, they will need meaningful employment, and the skills and abilities to climb a ladder of career progression.
It’s shocking then, that the proportion of offenders in employment one year after release is just 17 per cent.
The government has an opportunity to fix this problem by amending long-standing policy and legislation which prevents prisoners undertaking apprenticeships while serving their sentence.
Ministers in the Department for Education deserve great credit for spearheading the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will revitalise an incredibly important part of the education sector that has seen its per-student funding cut by over 11 per cent since 2010.
However, the Bill risks missing a huge opportunity to extend the apprenticeships programme into prisons. That is why I have tabled an amendment that would do just that.
The lack of apprenticeships in prisons is a huge obstacle to improving employment opportunities for prison leavers
What we have currently is a system where only four education providers are commissioned across every prison in the country. What we need instead, is far more participation from local higher-education colleges who have links to local employers.
One of those big four providers told the Education Select Committee that qualifications offered throughout the prison estate can be outdated, at a low level, and with little progression for opportunities into Level 3 (A level equivalent) and above. This last point was echoed by the Prisoner Learning Alliance, who also state there is too little variety in course provision.
Ofsted has criticised the lack of connections that prison education has with employers who can offer prisoners practical experience and skills, something that should be branded into the system, and would be if we had wide-spread provision of apprenticeships.
The Committee has received multiple evidence submissions highlighting that the lack of apprenticeships in prisons is a huge obstacle to improving employment opportunities for prison leavers. Another of the big four providers noted the importance of apprenticeships in developing vocational skills that directly correspond to employers’ needs, and are a key learning route into employment.
David Breakspear, a former prisoner, told us apprenticeships for those in custody would provide “hope, and sometimes, hope is all you need to influence change.”
The government made a positive step in the right direction in 2019 when it decided that more prisoners could be eligible for release on temporary licence earlier on in their sentence. The Ministry of Justice said this change would give prisoners more opportunities to work and train with employers while serving their sentence. But progress has since stagnated.
Extending apprenticeships would make a huge difference, but there are other fundamental issues that need addressing simultaneously.
My Committee’s inquiry has heard that the capability for assessing new prisoners for special educational needs or disabilities varies greatly between different institutions.
The majority of prisons are rated as either “requiring improvement” or “inadequate” by Ofsted for their educational provision.
Tragically, we have heard that records of inmates’ educational achievements often go missing when they transfer between prisons. And it has been universally agreed by witnesses in our inquiry that classroom resources and technology in prisons need updating to be brought in line with the technological advances of the twenty first century.
Investment in prison education is the keystone to improving many aspects of our criminal justice system: lowering crime rates, reducing pressure on courts and prisons, strengthening the workforce, and filling the yawning gaps in the country’s labour market.
Over 20 MPs from across the Commons have lent their signatures to my amendment and in a recent Committee hearing, the skills minister responded positively to suggest that action can be taken without a need for primary legislation. However, provisions within the Prisons Act and a subsequent spaghetti of new policies have meant that making these changes through secondary legislation will be complicated.
We urgently need clarification from the government ahead of the Skills Bill returning to Parliament for the Report Stage debate. It is my hope that ministers will continue to work constructively with me to ensure these commitments become a reality. This must be an opportunity that the government does not allow itself to miss.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow.
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