Oral statement to Parliament

The Government's new offender learning strategy

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This speech is about recidivism. It’s about the frightening fact that 39 per cent of offenders re-offend. Countless extra crimes in every part…

This speech is about recidivism. It’s about the frightening fact that 39 per cent of offenders re-offend. Countless extra crimes in every part of Britain. It’s about the £13 billion a year that costs the community. It’s about the broken lives of the parents, wives and children of those who go on breaking the law. And it’s about all the extra victims of those crimes. For all of them, things must change.

The poet of the Parisian underclass, Victor Hugo, wrote that “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.

Perhaps that’s as true literally as he meant it metaphorically.

Education can certainly save people from ignorance, from want, from frustration and from a whole host of other obstacles that would otherwise stop them leading a truly fulfilled life. But there are also countless examples, of how education can rehabilitate those whose lives have already taken the wrong turning.

Just as in Hugo’s time, skills like those people can learn by taking an Apprenticeship can make the difference between a life on the right side of the law and a life trapped in the damaging cycle of reoffending and reimprisonment.

Of course, however hard we try, we will never manage to rehabilitate all prisoners successfully. But we are nonetheless entitled to ask why, despite all the money and effort that we put into prisoner education and other forms of rehabilitation, reconviction rates remain so high.

Like many of you, I watched the BBC’s recent documentary about The Clink prison restaurant. I was struck not only by what a great initiative this is, training young offenders - very much on the Apprenticeships model - for careers in the catering industry on release, but also by how well it exemplified some of the problems that bedevil our efforts to rehabilitate.

For every youngster who seized the second chance they were being offered, there were several who could not seem to bring themselves to do so.

If there were awards for most inspiring and most depressing television programme of the year, the story of The Clink would stand a good chance of winning both.

But those of us who believe in the power of learning to accomplish social and personal good are surely duty-bound to ensure that prisoner education contributes as much as it possibly can to helping those who come out of prison to stay out of prison. That, most think, means delivering what’s needed to get and keep a job.

Ensuring that even prisoners with very low skills, including the basics of literacy and numeracy needs, are shown a clear ladder of achievement to attain the skills they will need after release to hold down a job in the outside world.

That’s in their interest, in their potential victims’ interest; it’s in all our interest.

It also means ensuring that the skills towards which prisoners are guided are those employers need, especially in the localities into which they will be released.

In essence, this is what the strategy we are publishing today seeks to do. It emerges from a lengthy review process and I want to take this chance to thank everyone who has contributed to it, including many of you.

When you read it, you’ll see that some parts of the strategy address issues that are specific to prisoner education, such as the problems with disruption to learning that can occur when someone moves between prisons during their sentence. Others are familiar outside as well as in prisons.

These include the disillusionment and demotivation that learners can often feel if they work hard to acquire new skills which do not, in the end, help them to find a job.

I’ve no doubt that all of you will welcome some parts of the strategy. I’m equally certain that some of you will find others very challenging. But the thing that matters most is that we emerge with a system that fills those prisoners who are ready to be rehabilitated with enthusiasm for what learning and skills can do to help them. This is about changing lives by changing beliefs. What thousands of Britons who get on the wrong side of the law believe about themselves, their responsibilities, their duties, their futures.

Many of today’s prisoners are behind bars because they think, for them, only crime pays. No-one amongst the many people they have come across in their chaotic lives has set their feet on the ladder that climbs from basic and foundation skills upwards to the skills that could make them employable and bring them a decent life by lawful means.

That ignorance - that fear of failure - is the ultimate form of captivity.

In future, I want everyone who is released from prison to come out with the realistic opportunity to find a job that leads to an honest and productive life. This matters to all of us: because of the costs involved; because of the number of victims created; because of the number of lives ruined if we don’t do better. There is an ongoing tragedy of lost souls within those parts of our communities at the bedrock of Broken Britain. The cohesive societies which we all want to see can only be built by individuals, families and social networks enriched by purposeful pride.

Achieving what society deserves will take a lot more than money. But the first principle of our reform programme must be to ensure that what money we have goes where it is most needed and will do most good.

Which means finding new ways in which to organise how we deliver offender learning so that it has greatest effect and to ensure that this is mirrored more closely by the way we allocate resources.

For example, we will be trialling outcome incentive payments to give colleges and other providers a greater stake not just in delivering learning successfully, but that the learning goes on to have a positive impact on the prisoner.

We will also be prioritising forms of training like preparation for Apprenticeships that are known to deliver the best results for individual and are attractive to employers.

To help with that, we’re going to base the new structure on the clusters of prisons within which prisoners routinely move. That will go a long way towards addressing the problem of interrupted courses that I mentioned, as well as bringing more coherence to the system overall.

This reorganisation will make it necessary to re-procure offender learning contracts. I understand that this is a worrying development for some of you, and I can assure you that we gave it very careful thought.

The retendering process will allow us to strengthen the arrangements to assess prisoners’ prior attainment at the start of their sentences, ensuring that learning needs are met by the right training programmes. Our aim will be put in place arrangements that mean all prisoners are assessed using robust and consistent methods.

Equally importantly, this will ensure that prisoners with learning difficulties and disabilities are identified. That will allow their needs to be met by drawing together the dispersed funding that currently supports them to produce a fund that offers support to learners in a way that more closely matches what their peers in FE colleges would receive.

As a general rule, we will shift learning delivery towards the end of prisoners’ sentences, linking it firmly to the demand for skills in the labour markets into which prisoners will be released. At the same time, we will strengthen links with employers - again, the shared investment that employers and the Government make in training an apprentice can help here - as will employment support and the Department of Work and Pensions’ Work Programme.

Making all that work will need a lot of effort, a more intensive focus for training on labour market needs and closer relationships with prospective employers. We will need in particular to build stronger relationships between the Probation Service, Jobcentre Plus, colleges and independent training providers to ensure that the needs of offenders in the community are considered as business plans are developed.

I know that many British employers are every bit as far-sighted as the American Malcolm Forbes, who famously said that he cared not what an applicant to his company had done in the past, whether in Sing Sing prison or at Harvard, but what they could do in the future. The challenge is to make sure not only that released prisoners have something to offer prospective employers that shows that they could have a future with their businesses, but also, wherever possible, that a relationship with those employers has been established before release.

To complement these links, it will be important to make sure that the advice and guidance that prisoners approaching release receive is both realistic and relevant. So we will use the planned merger of the prison careers information and advice service into the National Careers Service to join up advice arrangements in and out of custody.

To increase the range and relevance of learning, we will also provide the skills training needed to support work opportunities in prison; And we will continue to provide an informal adult and community learning offer, including the arts, to support those who will be in prison for a long time, or for whom an immediate focus on work is unrealistic.

The primary focus of learning provision must be on quality, with those responsible for delivering the service and for its outcomes accountable to their local partners. The role of Heads of Learning and Skills in prisons will need to change to support this.

Clearly, prison Governors must also have a decisive role in shaping the skills offer in their establishments. In making these changes, we will encourage the engagement of charities, the private and voluntary sectors and social enterprises to make sure their capacity and expertise is utilised.

At present, our prisons are full to overflowing. And part of the reason for that is that for far too many offenders, the prison gates are a revolving door.

It may be that part of coming to terms with malevolence - a signpost of the journey back to virtue - is “to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments”. But there comes a point in almost any sentence when retribution must be tempered by rehabilitation.

Crime is not an ill to be treated, but the result of decisions to be lamented. Nevertheless, lamentation is fuelled by regret and regret feeds hope; the promise of something better. Release must hold a prospect that is sufficiently bright to make reoffending unattractive. For most prisoners, that means gaining the skills and support necessary to find and hold down a decent job.

Our strategy, some details of which I’ve described briefly this morning, is designed to accomplish that difference in outlook and expectation, leading to a determination to change life for the better … and to ensure that, for as many ex-offenders as possible, release is followed not by re-arrest, but by re-employment and reintegration into normal, law-abiding society.

I said at the start that this speech was about recidivism, about the costs of crime in terms of money and in terms of the damage to society. The changes we will introduce are tough and far-reaching. They are honest in intent and central to the battle against reoffending.

The plain, robust view that prisons should be workshops - and that, through the acquisition of skills, those there will become good citizens, should imbue all that we do.

With your help and support, I believe that ambition is within our grasp.

Thank you.