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Employment for Women with Criminal Convictions

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 3 February 2015 at the House of Commons

Speakers:

The Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Minister of State for Female Offenders
Jocelyn Hillman, Founder and CEO, Working Chance
Zara, a former offender and member of the senior management team at Working Chance; and
Daviña, a former offender and trainee recruitment consultant at Working Chance
Jenny Earle, Director of Programme to Reduce Women’s Imprisonment, Prison Reform Trust

Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting by welcoming all present. He noted that unfortunately the Minister, Simon Hughes, had said that he would be late, but that he would join the meeting at 5.30. He regretted that, in the past, there had been several changes of minister for the women’s estate and unfortunately some of them had shown little interest in the area. However Simon Hughes had done a great deal, and it was unfortunate that he had not been appointed sooner, and that he would run out of time for what he wanted to do. He hoped however that the Minister would lay down an agenda, and it would be up to others to take it forward. Meanwhile, he invited Jocelyn Hillman, founder and chief executive of Working Chance, together with her two colleagues, Zara and Daviña, to open proceedings.

Jocelyn Hillman began: ‘Thank you for inviting Working Chance to speak this evening. Set up in 2007, Working Chance is the only recruitment consultancy for women offenders in the UK. Although a charity we mirror the approach of commercial high street recruitment consultancies as much as possible. Right from the start we decided that we needed to be commercially minded, matching women ex-offenders – talented and inspiring women – with mainstream employers, and supporting employers to overcome their prejudices and to recognize our candidates’ talent.

We deal with practical issues such as domestic violence, debt, confiscation orders, child custody, housing etc. But at the core of what we do, our raison d’être is finding our candidates paid jobs. We do offer through-the-gate training, mentoring and support for women leaving prison, because we know this transition is crucial. But we also know there is another, more important gate: the one from a life on benefits at the margins of society to a productive, working life. Helping our candidates through this more important and difficult gate is our area of expertise. Getting women into work really does break the cycle of re-offending.

As I said, we aim to operate like a commercial recruitment consultancy. So we market our candidates to employers, which includes running regular assessment days. And we market jobs to our candidates. But we also work with employers to help them overcome lack of confidence around the recruitment of women with criminal convictions.

I know you are familiar with some of the particular needs of women offenders. I’d like to thank Simon for his very helpful contributions to the debate last week. So I’d like to highlight three key conclusions we have drawn over the years.

Firstly, there is the impact of drawing women into mainstream, working life. The reoffending rate for the women we place is 4% compared to the national average of 45% - with 0% offending in the workplace. Our candidates tell us that once they are in work, because of their increased confidence and feelings of self-worth, they don’t smack their children as much, they spend quality time with them instead. They tell us that their children go to school more readily, are more likely to do well and go on to further education and, crucially, are less likely to join gangs or turn to crime because they can see there is a viable future for them in mainstream society. So there’s a cost saving to society in this generation, and there’s a cost saving to society in the next generation.

Secondly, our experience shows that employers’ attitudes can change. So a major area of work for us is educating employers to break down myths and preconceptions around hiring women ex-offenders. During our assessment days and interview practice sessions, employers see the women in action and can see their can-do, positive attitude and hunger to work. Our candidates have faced great adversity in their lives and overcome it. Smart employers are looking for employees who can rise to challenges and overcome adversity.

Last year we supported almost 150 women into paid work. And more than 50 into internships and voluntary placements as a stepping stone toward paid work. Last year we placed candidates into paid work with 33 new employers including EgonZehnder, Enders Analysis and, finally, after years of trying, an NHS Trust. We have about 100 live employers on our books at the moment who let us compete with other recruitment consultancies – we don’t want charity, we want a level playing field. If any of you here would be interested in employing one of our candidates and using our recruitment services, then please speak to us afterwards.

Thirdly we establish a new normal. We need to start seeing ex-offenders in positive terms. Many of our candidates have been victims as well as offenders, but neither label is helpful. So we need to look at where they are going, not where they’ve been. And we work hard to embed this mind-set with employers.

When major employers, or people in the public eye, hire women ex-offenders they send a powerful message. To other employers, to judge potential employees on their merits; care about a crime free society; care about social inclusion and social mobility for future generations. To women ex-offenders, that the gate to mainstream employment is open, that they can become a contributing member of society. To the children of women ex-offenders: your mum’s got a future. You’ve got a future in mainstream, working society.

It was a tremendous fillip to our campaign when the then Lord Mayor of London, Dame Fiona Woolf, hired two of our candidates last year, both of them serving prisoners. Both candidates have since gone on to more senior roles with large corporates. I hope I have illustrated how getting women ex-offenders into paid work is fundamental to breaking the cycle of re-offending and poverty. And I hope you will spread the word and open doors for Working Chance so that we can help more women with convictions get paid work and become role models for their children’.

Jocelyn Hillman then handed over to her colleague.

Zara began: ‘As Recruitment Manager at Working Chance, I’m here to talk to you about the realities of finding work after prison. Women in prison have plenty of opportunities to gain qualifications which are supposed to help them find a job. Most ex-offenders have NVQs coming out of their ears – prisons love getting inmates on education and training courses. It’s good to be seen creating opportunities for offenders, and offering a qualification is an easy way to do that.

The problem is that the training offered in women’s prisons completely fails to reflect the realities of today’s job market. In 2010 the UK taxpayer funded 94,000 hair and beauty qualifications – despite the fact that there were only 18,000 vacancies in the industry.
Women in prison need training for twenty-first century careers where there are real job openings. They need to learn IT skills, data analysis, computer programming – not hairdressing. A lack of technological know-how is the single greatest barrier to employment for many of our candidates. They don’t know how to fill in online applications, they’re not comfortable using Microsoft Word, they’ve never heard of LinkedIn – they’re completely unprepared for the realities of finding a job.

In a saturated job market, employers are looking for the right person – not the right NVQ. In the years following the recession, every entry-level vacancy was swamped with applications from over-qualified people who were struggling to get into work. And so employers learnt to ignore the pieces of paper, and focus instead on the person: their skills, their attitude, their presentation. This is why we hold assessment days, where employers can meet candidates face to face and evaluate them as potential employees – not just as a pile of CVs.
Prisons need to get with the times, if we really want to cut reoffending rates. As Jocelyn said, we need to focus on helping ex-offenders through the second gateway, back into work and into society as productive, contributing citizens – and this is why Working Chance exists’.
Zara then handed over to her Colleague Davinia.

Daviña began: ‘What I would like to say is, before Working Chance, I had a career, I had a degree, but I ended up with a conviction. After that, you’ve got no confidence, Job Centres can’t help you, you’ve got nowhere to go. It’s quite depressing. And then I found Working Chance. It was literally the best thing. It helped me rebuild my confidence and then I got a job which I stayed in for just over a year. Then I saw the recruitment consultant job with Working Chance and I went for that. And now I am helping other women go through the same process’.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the three speakers. After questions from the audience he suggested the meeting moved on to hear from Jenny Earle, from the Prison Reform Trust.

Jenny Earle thanked Lord Ramsbotham and drew the meeting’s attention to the recent PRT briefing, ‘Working it out: Employment for women offenders’, which was available to the meeting. She continued: ‘It is intended to draw attention to the particular barriers women leaving prison face in finding work. Employment is one of the recognised resettlement pathways for all offenders, but the outcomes for women are three times worse than for men. Less than ten per cent of women leave prison with a job to go to, even though most women who serve custodial sentences desperately want a job when they leave prison, and some of them have lost jobs as a result of receiving such a sentence.

The other focus of our briefing is very much to encourage the use of alternatives to custody in the first place, and encourage greater use of community sentencing options involving employment programmes such as community payback. So the briefing is full of facts and figures demonstrating the additional barriers that women face. For example, although all offenders suffer from stigma and from the effects of the requirement to disclose a conviction, women face additional barriers, particularly childcare. I think that is a very under-discussed issue in relation to supporting women into employment either as an alternative to custody or coming out of prison. Access to childcare is absolutely critical and is very rarely part of the package that women are offered. So we hope that the recommendations that we are making and the discussions we are having with the Minister and with the department will lead to much more attention being paid to that as part of the strategy to improve employment outcomes.

Nearly half of women coming out of prison after short sentences are reconvicted. We know that employment offers a long term solution, is part of the solution to women’s offending. It is particularly important to women because of the impact that their vulnerability to domestic violence and abusive relationships has on their offending. I couldn’t put it better than the Governor of Holloway put it recently when she was talking about a new programme that she has been running in the prison which has been identifying women for an apprenticeship programme supported by the Lush cosmetics firm. I don’t know if you have been reading about that in the Evening Standard: it has had some very good coverage. The Lush cosmetics executive said they wouldn’t provide support for this programme unless it included women. They had to be very assertive about it because, overall in criminal justice policy as we know, there is still a tendency to neglect women, because they represent such a small proportion both of the prison population and of the numbers of people being supervised on probation in the community: only about five per cent in prison, and fifteen per cent of the probation population.

Julia Killick said ‘It is a sad fact that most of the women in Holloway are there because of the men they associate with. So by helping them become financially independent you transform their lives.’ I think that is very well put as a summary of the reasons for increasing our efforts to ensure women have access to employment.

The issue of RoTL has been mentioned. We are concerned that women are getting fewer opportunities for release on temporary license because of the clamp-down that resulted from a few disastrous escapes by a small number of male prisoners. We are encouraging that to be reviewed. Tomorrow a PRT briefing will be published on RoTL which will highlight the disproportionate impact that the new restrictions have had on some women. Although the numbers never tell the full story, anecdotal accounts suggest that women are having more difficulty in getting access to RoTL, even though there is increased recognition of the importance of employment to their resettlement outcomes. Housing, jobs, safe relationships – they are all critical for women, and childcare has to be part of the package. We are going to be distributing this briefing far and wide to ensure that discussions on these issues are supported by the evidence and are better informed.

The other thing I should say before mentioning our recommendations is that this briefing comes hard on the heels of a report we produced with the Soroptimists. They have been gathering information from around the UK about women’s experience of criminal justice, and the availability to them of women-specific services and support programmes. The lack of employment support, the lack of childcare support, and the lack of recognition of their employment needs is very much a feature of their findings, and grounded a recommendation that they have made for increased government focus on providing employment programmes for women, including the provision of incentives to employers to employ women offenders.

We need to do something very proactive to increase the opportunities for women to find employment, and to find decent well-paid jobs. Women’s work on the whole is much lower-paid than men’s and that also adversely effects their prospects for financial independence, and their ability to escape and avoid abusive relationships.

At this point the Minister, Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, entered the meeting.

Jenny Earle continued: ‘Also of course I have to say that the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have just kicked in. All short sentence prisoners will be subject to supervision on release. Hopefully that will amount to improved support. We are very pleased that there is this ‘women’s amendment’ in the Offender Rehabilitation Act, an obligation on Government to ensure that all supervision services identify and address the specific needs of women offenders. If that one year’s supervision isn’t to constitute an extra sentence then we have to see more resources going into community programmes and community support, particularly around childcare and jobs for women. Thank you very much.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Jenny Earle for her presentation and then introduced the Minister. He mentioned again that the frequency with which Ministers with responsibility for women had succeeded one another had been regrettable, as this had meant there had been too little consistency in arrangements. From all he understood, it had been a great pity that this Minister had taken up his post so late in the Government’s life.

Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP thanked the Chair for his introduction. He continued: ‘In the fifteen months since I have been appointed I have been delighted to be responsible for women offenders. I asked to do that particular job. I don’t intend to go anywhere before the general election, and the electorate will decide what happens after that. But I would be delighted if I were able to continue doing this work. This is a very important issue. I have taken an interest in penal affairs and custody matters all my adult life, and I have been delighted to have the chance to do things.

I welcome very warmly the report from the Prison Reform Trust and the Soroptimists and the collaboration that they have put together. I have worked very closely with Juliet Lyon and colleagues who with others are on the advisory group which works with me on women offenders. We had a very good event last week and I will come back to that.

Just a little bit of history to what is going on at the moment. The women’s custodial estate review was published just before I came into office, and there was a recommendation that all women’s prisons develop a community employment regime. We have twelve women’s prisons, two of them are open prisons, and the rest are all intended to be resettlement prisons. It is absolutely logical if that is the case that every single prison has as much training for work, preparation for work, and movement into work as possible. The whole idea of the strategy is that women at the end of their sentence – and don’t forget that many women have very short sentences – will be in a prison near to where they intend to live afterwards. That is not always where they have come from, because some women don’t want to go back to where they came from. They want to restart somewhere else. But for most women it is where they came from.

The intention is therefore that we should put them in the place where they can establish the best links with the community. There are three things, it seems to me, that go to make the best opportunities for women who are inside not to reoffend. One is employment – I will come back to that. The second is family links: making sure if they have children they can have maximum links with their children when they are inside and with the rest of their family, and making those links and that support as full as possible. The third is housing. Those three have been my priorities in relation to how we look after women who come into custody from the very beginning of their time there.

To be absolutely honest there is differential performance in different prisons on the women’s estate. In a couple of weeks from now I will have visited every prison in the women’s estate once, some more than once. Let me tell you what has been going on in some of them. I was in Styal again last week, up in the North West, mainly for women from the North West and from North Wales. Styal has as its latest initiative something that’s happened in some of the male estates, the conversion of a building which was a chapel, outside the main gates, which will from March be a restaurant for the community. It will employ about forty of the women from the prison as its staff, as a preparation for working outside. They are very much looking forward to it. Every other Clink restaurant that has been established has been hugely successful, indeed the one in Cardiff won the ‘best restaurant in Cardiff’ award last week.

I went a few months ago to Holloway, and they have set up a link with the London College of Fashion. The students and the lecturers from the London College come in and train the women in fashion. One of the things we are trying to do is make sure that the work that is being prepared for is work for which there is a market, so there is a high probability that you might get a job. Clearly in London, working in fashion is potentially very fruitful. That has gone well, as has another initiative in Holloway which we saw, which is producing a magazine for the prison. So we have got design and print and journalism on the one hand and fashion and retail and clothing on the other.

There is also a magazine publication workshop at Send. Send has other things that it specialises in, particularly horticulture. That is appropriate because it is next to the botanical gardens at Wisley in Surrey and therefore there is a very good cross fertilisation with the people outside the gates. In Eastwood Park , in Gloucestershire, which is the prison for the South West, so people come from as far away as Cornwall, as well as South Wales, they have built up the strongest links with individual employers, as have other prisons. Greggs the bakers are very good employers, working with women around the country, they have taken a lot of initiatives. They have trained and recruited women and taken a lot of them into their bakeries and outlets. Timpsons, as people know, are probably the leading company which has made a contribution to looking proactively for women who are in custody to work for them, and they are working with Eastwood Park, as are Staverton airport, the local airport in Gloucestershire, which has been proactive too.

Low Newton, up in the North East, is taking part in a joint pilot by the Department of Business and NOMS to prepare people for self-employment on release. I sense that there is a growing number of people for whom self-employment is their preferred option – or at least working with other people who they may have met inside. I have seen a few good examples of people forming links to be entrepreneurial with other people to take a business outside, whether it is catering or other things. They have had a start-up loan from the start-up loans company and they see it as a way of giving them the opportunity to work. Sometimes there are similar links with women’s centres: they train women to do the same sort of work in women’s centres and that is equally helpful, getting people into work who might otherwise be at risk of offending - not just women coming out of custody, but women who are at risk of custody.

As many of you will know, there has for a while been something called the Employers Forum for Reducing Reoffending. It has a large number of employers, and I am reliably informed is regarded as good and useful, and is trying to capture those people who are committed to helping train and employ.

It struck me however that there are various failures and inadequacies in the system. Firstly of course no woman has to work in prison. You can’t make a woman work or study. You can require them to do things in the prison but you can’t require them to do horticultural courses for example. It has to be a matter of incentivising them to do that. Across the prison estate, bluntly, there was differential engagement with the outside world, with employment and training, and there still is. There are some very good examples, and some very well-led women’s prisons, but they are not all up to the same standard in terms of the opportunity given to the women who come through their gates. So I tried to ask the question: what do we need to do more than we have been doing?

The first issue seemed to me to be to make sure that we maximise the education and training potential of all places in custody. For example, in a prison you might be able to do NVQ 1 and 2 in say horticultural or catering, but there would not be a provision to do NVQ 3. So if you were there for longer than for your first two courses you then were stuck. You could not increase your skill in your chosen area of activity and therefore you had to change to do something else, which actually might not be what you preferred to do. So that is demotivating, because if you are trying to plan for release the logical thing is to focus on a particular career. If for example you have been convicted of a fraud offence or a financial offence, which would mean going back to your job in a shop, or in the finance department of a business, would be difficult, then you need to do something entirely separate from that. But you need to be able to build up your training while you are in prison, and not get stuck half way up the ladder. So I have been engaged in conversations with the three colleges who provide all the training and education in our women’s prisons, principally Manchester College, and also Milton Keynes and Weston-Super-Mare colleges, to try to make sure that we can also offer three other things.

After the initial assessment of women’s educational needs, their basic literacy and numeracy, there then needs to be an offer of general life skills for as long as the individual might need it. Some might barely need it, or not need it, but some might need it quite intensively. I am trying to get that accredited so that there would be some recognition that it is worth having. It would be about everything from CVs and interview techniques – all the things we know – but would be a basic core provision available to all women, so that nobody would lack in the self-confidence and the motivation or the other things that often are a barrier to successful applications. Then in addition to the provision that the college contractor provides, in-house as it were, we try to make sure that there is a link with the local colleges, so that if someone under the curriculum that has been agreed in advance with the provider can only get NVQ 1 and 2 in woodwork for example, then the local college could come in and offer NVQ 3, or further skills. So we are trying to make sure that we don’t hold people back. Some may be degree level.

Then the further thing that is absolutely imperative it seems to me – we had a very productive conversation with NOMS and the colleges and the team in the MoJ the other day – is to make sure that people who start courses when they are inside can take the credits from what they have done and carry them on without difficulty to the outside. It is no good getting half way through a course, then when you are released that is not recognised, and you cannot get into anything until the next academic year. Women want to be able to continue, and to be profitably engaged outside, especially if they are incentivised and motivated.

The second is making sure that childcare and a decent home is available on release. You can’t expect women (or men either but more women have more childcare responsibilities than men do) to come out of prison, and be able to concentrate on getting their life together, sorting out the finances, looking after the family, and looking for a job and then doing a job. It is just unrealistic. Even less so if they are living in a hostel or have no security of accommodation. So the absolute imperative is to make sure that accommodation is available. If you are inside for a very short time and are a tenant, your tenancy will be protected. You will be allowed three months payment by the state to cover your tenancy when you are not there. Gradually that is being increased to six months. But if you are in prison for more than six months and you are the tenant you will almost certainly lose your tenancy. If you have children they will go hopefully to another member of the family, often the mother of the person who is in prison. But it doesn’t mean to say that when the mother of the children comes out that is a satisfactory long-term solution. So the crucial challenge is to make sure that we get a much more joined up policy for providing housing ready when people are released, so that they have a base from which they can train, get their education, and work. That is principally, but not only, a local authority responsibility.

So where have we got to in trying to make sure we have the housing but also maximising opportunities for employment? The best bits of the country so far have been the North West of England and Wales. They are the leaders in coordinating all the provision. When I had visited Styal last week we had an extremely good meeting in Manchester Town Hall. Tony Lloyd, the chair, is the police commissioner for Greater Manchester, and people from the health service, from NOMS, and all the representatives of the ten local councils which make up the metropolitan local authorities within Greater Manchester shared their experience of how they coordinate provision across Greater Manchester. They really have done exceptionally well, working as a team, and all credit to them. They feel confident enough now to share their experiences with the rest of the country. So I invited them to propose the same model to the five other metropolitan areas: Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Merseyside and Greater London. We had representatives from all of those areas with us. Preceding that, Juliet and I had a meeting with the Deputy Mayor for Policing in London, and the Mayor, and then I had a meeting with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to make sure that we would see that as a strategic obligation across London. The Mayor’s office and the Commissioner have very enthusiastically signed up to that. It is my objective that before the end of March, in other words before the end of this Parliament, we have in place a similarly join-up strategy for meeting housing, and training and employment needs, in the other metropolitan areas as the next step. That covers 40% of the population of the country, more than half of the women offenders. Then we will have the rest to do. But it just seemed to me that you need to go to the places where you would capture the most population in the scheme as quickly as possible. I am driving it, to the stress of my team in the MoJ probably, to try to make sure that we have that in place in all six metropolitan areas of England as well as in London and in Wales, by the end of next month.

Which brings me back to employment: we still bluntly do not have anything like the employment opportunities we need. The report suggests that about one in ten women are in employment and therefore nine are not. You may all know this, but there are no very clear statistics, and there has been no very effective research done over the years to track what happens to women on release in terms of employment. The best statistics that we have, and we don’t pretend that they are perfect because they are based on self-reporting, are that about 15% of women go into employment. The figures on release for men are a bit higher: but they are between 10% and 20%, certainly no more than 20%. So at best it is probably a little better than the report suggests, but I am not seeking to dissent hugely from it. The majority of people do not go into employment. Many of them, I have to tell you, have not worked, or have not worked for a very long time. A woman I met in Eastwood Park who was a thirty-eight year old with three children, was in prison for the seventeenth time for a short term offence. She had not worked at any time since before she had her children – I think she told me for eighteen or nineteen years – and so she had no confidence to work. But when we had a conversation, I hope not under pressure, she wasn’t saying she wouldn’t work or couldn’t work, she just needed to be able to enter the market in a place where she felt that she had the support and it was going to be supportive to her. There are many people who have not worked for a long time, and don’t have the skills, so we must not assume they are all ready and raring to go.

What I am now doing, and we will be doing this over the next few weeks, is building on the experience of NACRO in London with men, and building on the experience of the North West and Wales, and seeking to get the big employers in each of the regions of England to act as a group which will ‘adopt’ as it were the women’s prison in their region. Each region in England has one women’s prison, apart from Greater London. Therefore I am proposing to write to the chief executive and/or chair of each of the top 100 to 150 employees by workforce in each region to ask whether they would be willing to take responsibility for helping the women in their region into employment. We would build up a very large number. We are relying at the moment on a few companies running a few schemes, to be honest, and if we had for example 50 companies in each region being willing to take half a dozen women four times a year for training and potential employment it would make a huge difference. We also need to think of a much bigger breadth of employment opportunity. Greggs are great and Timpsons are great, but not every woman wants to work in a bakery or a Timpsons: they are fine, but some women have skills and abilities and we ought to be seeking to match those to the market. So the project is to try to seek big companies – and the public sector can play a part too, and in some areas they do – to have the corporate social responsibility to help women into work.

I want to end with the reasons why this is so important. Of course this is important for the individual women; of course it is important for their wider family, and for the community; and of course it is important for the tax payer. But actually the group in a way we ought to be most worried about are the dependents of the women. Most of the women have dependents, particularly children. Because otherwise we are condemning the next generation of children to be in workless households because often there is only one potential earner, namely the woman, in the household, and the cycle of potential offending is therefore increased. The Government to its credit has just extended the Troubled Families programme from 120,000 to 400,000. One of the criteria to be included now is that you are a family where there are two generations of offenders. I have met people in women’s prisons who are there at the same time as their Mum is in the same prison, which is very sad.

So for me the challenge is about not only making sure that we seize the opportunity, since these women are a captive audience: they can’t go anywhere for a few weeks or months; but also about making sure we take the opportunity to link them with .the regional employers who therefore have an interest in them as a workforce. If the resettlement regime strategy is to mean anything then it means for me that we have a regional employment strategy for female offenders and they will have the maximum support in doing that. Transforming Rehabilitation is coming into operation this month. I do believe in it. It will help particularly those women who are serving short sentences. The average women’s sentence is just under ten months. Very frequently in the past they have gone out of the gates with no support. They will now have support. One of the pieces of support has to be to help them in their education, training and employment. I am confident that we can get the numbers up significantly, at the same time as I hope we can get the numbers of women who go to prison down significantly by making sure that we have productive alternatives to prison for those who should not be there in the first place.

I hope that has been useful and I am very happy to take questions and ideas.’