Out of sight: the forgotten workforce

Britain’s economy is clamouring for workers. So much so that the Government dubbed the main fiscal event of 2023 its “back to work Budget”, introducing a new Universal Support scheme to help tens of thousands more disadvantaged people into the workforce. Labour has pledged to “get Britain working again”.

But despite the strength of feeling across all main parties that we need to do more to increase the vitality of the UK labour market, one group remains curiously absent from the discussion.

That is the 85,000 men and women currently serving time in our prison estate, of whom around 47,000 re-enter the community every year. This report is focused on realising the potential of this often written off group of people.

First and foremost a custodial sentence and the deprivation of liberty should serve as a punishment for, and deterrent to, committing crime. But prison time must also be used as an opportunity to ensure that the cycle of offending is broken, and that more would-be victims are protected from the immense harm of crime.

There is a compelling body of domestic and international evidence showing that work is a route out of crime as well as a route out of poverty. A major Government study found that being in work has a statistically significant effect on reducing reoffending rates, replicated in more recent longitudinal research undertaken across the EU and US. Earlier analysis suggests a job cuts the risk of reoffending by between a third and a half.

With the cost of reoffending alone estimated by the Ministry of Justice to reach some £18bn every year, the net result of rehabilitation is not only huge savings for the taxpayer, but safer communities for everyone to enjoy.

The Government has shown a keen recognition of the importance of employment in the rehabilitative process, a welcome development, having recently achieved their target to establish Employment Advisory Boards across all 92 resettlement prisons by spring of 2023. Ministers have also changed the law to make apprenticeships more accessible for people in prison who are nearing the end of their sentences to gain the skills they need to secure work on their release.

This work is having an impact, helping the number of prison leavers in employment six weeks after they left custody to rise by more than half between April 2021 and March 2022 – that is, from 10 to 16 per cent. Those employed sixth months post-release rose 14 to 23 per cent in the same period.
But we must urgently raise our ambition. It remains that only around a quarter had a job six months after stepping out of the prison gates. Surely we can go further and faster.

Unlocking Aspiration sets out how we can help more prison leavers into – and critically, to sustain – work.


Sign up to the CSJ mailing list to receive our regular newsletter,
the latest reports, and be the first to hear about our upcoming events.