Tory conference: Branson backs jobs for criminals
Sir Richard Branson has backed government plans for more convicted criminals to be given jobs.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke set out more details of his scheme to set up factories in prisons at the Tory conference in Manchester.
He wants to see 20,000 inmates working by 2020 to raise money to compensate victims and cut reoffending.
Virgin boss Sir Richard says the plan could harness the talent of "potential superstars" in the prison population.
He has joined forces with other business leaders, including Marks and Spencer boss Marc Bolland, to sign a letter to the Financial Times.
'Skills and enthusiasm'
It says: "If we want to reduce crime, we need to reduce the number of criminals. The single most effective way of doing this is to get them into lawful constructive employment."
The business leaders say it also "makes sense" for UK companies to recruit offenders who have served their sentence to "make use of their skills and enthusiasm".
They cite figures showing reoffending rates of 22% for those who work full-time on release compared with 70% overall.
"Having a conviction is undoubtedly a major handicap for a job seeker, and UK companies are often reluctant to provide the second chance that prison leavers so desperately need," write the signatories.
"Our experience shows that people from prison, if properly selected, will prove to be just as reliable as recruits from elsewhere. It is their personality that matters the most."
In his speech to conference, Mr Clarke said Britain needed prisons that "work" - and that meant turning them into "places of reform" as well as retribution.
"The idea is to provide hard work in prison so that prisoners would be doing something productive, instead of doing nothing.
"Plotting a more honest future, instead of plotting their next crime, earning money to pay back to victims, instead of creating new victims."
He said prisons should be "drug free" and problems like addiction and mental health should be tackled "properly".
Steps should be taken to ensure treatment "doesn't suddenly stop when prisoners leave jail, which usually happens with those on short sentences," said the justice secretary.
He said the summer riots had shown that the "feral underclass in this country is too big, has been growing and needs to be diminished" and prison reform was key to making that happened.
"If we want less crime, we need fewer criminals," he told Tory activists.
But his Labour shadow Sadiq Khan said the speech showed the Conservatives were "completely out of touch on crime".
"Given that the government is struggling to create jobs outside of prisons, how on earth are they proposing to create them in prisons?
"It is critical that jobs are not taken away from the law-abiding majority and that Ken Clarke explains how he will provide the resources required to supervise 1-in-4 prisoners spending greater amounts of time outside of their cells."
Mr Clarke announced his plan to set up prison factories at last year's Conservative Party conference, and aides say a number of schemes have been set up around the country.
These include Altcourse Prison near Liverpool, where about 120 inmates are in employment, including some working 40 hours a week in the metal workshop.
In addition to gaining skills and qualifications, offenders get used to a working environment and last year raised £4,000 towards local victim support schemes such as the repair of war graves which had been vandalised, Ministry of Justice officials said.
Couriers DHL has workshops in a number of prisons, employing about 500 inmates. Timpson's - the family firm of Conservative MP Edward Timpson - also runs shoe repair workshops behind bars.
IT giant Cisco systems and retailer Marks and Spencer are among the companies running training schemes in prisons.
The government aims to have 10,000 prisoners working by 2015 and 20,000 by 2020. The prison population in England and Wales currently stands at about 84,000.
Many large firms - including supermarket giants Tesco, Asda and J Sainsbury and leisure group Virgin Active - employ prison leavers and those serving community sentences.
Among the other signatories to the Financial Times letter are Matthew Davies of Pets at Home, Steve Holliday of National Grid, Ian Sarson of Compass Group, James Reed of Reed Specialist Recruitment, Malcolm Walker of Iceland Foods and James Timpson of Timpson.