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Shadow justice minister: 'I'd favour contractors that offer opportunities to ex-offenders'

A Labour government would "favour" contractors that provide employment opportunities to ex-offenders when bidding for Ministry of Justice (MoJ) work, shadow secretary of state for justice Sadiq Khan has said.

Speaking at a Responsible Business Week session on recruiting ex-offenders, Khan said if Labour was elected in 2015 he would introduce a tendering system that considered whether potential MoJ contractors discriminated against people with criminal convictions.

“[If] their bids are broadly similar, but [one organisation] is not a progressive company taking on people with convictions and [the other] is – [the second organisation] would get the contract," Khan said.

“What I hope that would do in relation to [the first organisation] is they see there is bias towards companies taking on people with convictions and they look to do that.”

Khan said he wanted the MoJ to "set the pace" in Westminster so he "could use this as moral leverage to other Cabinet colleagues to get their departments to do the same”. 

Although his aim is to end employment discrimination against ex-offenders, Khan stressed not all roles in business and government suited people with certain criminal convictions, and it was up to organisations to apply appropriate risk assessments in recruitment.

Ban the Box

Encouraging organisations to ban discrimination against prisoners is at the heart of the Ban the Box campaign, in which organisations remove criminal disclosure tick-boxes from job applications.

Economist and Prisonomics author Vicky Pryce, who spent two months in prison over taking former husband and cabinet minister Chris Huhne’s motoring penalty points, is a strong advocate of providing employment opportunities to ex-offenders.

Pryce told delegates that employment would help tackle the high number of re-offenders clogging up UK prisons, which is estimated to cost the economy between £9.5 billion to £13 billion each year.

Research shows that 68% of prisoners believe employment is vital for rehabilitation but only 26% who leave prisons enter work.

“The most important thing in terms of reducing crime and re-offending is education and employment,” she said. “Working, contributing to the economy will reduce the cost to the Exchequer… Every employer that gets involved in [Banning the Box] is contributing something to society.”

Pryce believes that recruitment should be about skills and aptitude, rather than prejudice. She also took a swipe at a recent Government proposal to ban books being sent to prisoners, saying that a large proportion of the prison community have a sub-standard level of education.

“A lot of the people who end up in prison are already socially and educationally disadvantaged... banning the books makes absolutely no sense,” she said.

Pryce questioned the social and economic rationale of sending re-offenders repeatedly back to jail; suggesting if the NHS were run like the criminal justice system, hospitals would shut down because “we keep sending people back for the same operation… and after a while you close them down and think again”.

Ex-offenders make great employees

In an exclusive interview with HR magazine that is due to come out in May, Pryce said she had hired a former inmate who was one of the hardest working employees she had met.

The view that prisoners are great workers was echoed by Alliance Boots group legal counsel and chief administrative office Marco Pagni. Alliance Boots has hired 10 ex-offenders in its warehouses.

“These are employees who are head and shoulders above many of their colleagues in terms of performance, reliability, punctuality, engagement with co-workers and attention to detail,” Pagni said. “They are grateful to the opportunity they have been given.”

Pagni said prejudice against hiring ex-offenders was due to a “fear of the unknown” and discriminating against this group was “morally wrong”.

Alliance Boots is one of only a handful of companies, including event organiser Business in the Community, who have signed up to Ban the Box.

Such prejudice makes little economic sense. An estimated 7.5 million Britons have criminal convictions that could affect their employment prospects. It’s a huge, largely untapped talent pool that business should no longer ignore.