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Last week, Employment minister Chris Grayling promised to fund companies to the tune of £5,600 for each ex-prisoner they employ for longer than two years. The proposed policy aims to lessen the strain on the welfare state, but more importantly to help rehabilitate those released from prison to be able to lead meaningful, productive lives, contributing to society. 

It’s a much needed initiaitive. As a social group, ex-prisoners currently have amongst the highest long-term unemployment rates in the UK – official figures show that half of ex-offenders were on out-of-work benefits two years after being released from prison in 2008. Now, those released will be placed straight into the Work Programme, which provides specialist support to improve employability and reduce the risk of reoffending. And the statistics show that 61% of prisoners reoffend within two years of their release; but only 19% of prisoners who manage to find work following their sentence will reoffend within that same time period.

So far, so good. But what about the organisations that are going to transform this from a good idea in theory into one that changes people’s lives? It’s not just an issue of corporate social responsibility. Businesses must see this as an opportunity to expand – their horizons as well as their bottom line. Ex-prisoners are a largely untapped talent pool, one that businesses would be foolish to ignore as we see the war for talent rumbling into life again as the economy grows. The new funding might make the difference for many SMEs in being able to afford a new hire or not.

There are great examples of businesses that have engaged on this issue. Timpsons are a retailer that is well ahead of the curve. Having worked closely with Thorn Cross Young Offenders Institution, CEO John Timpson has implemented a strategy over the past ten years that sees his company employ more prison leavers than any other private organisation in the UK. And this isn’t just a philanthropic exercise, the results have been startling, with those employees playing a key role in Timpson’s culture which delivers some of the best customer service on the high street. John himself spoke about some of the people he’s been privileged to meet and take on, at the Good Day at Work™ Annual Conference in 2012 (watch that video here).

The Timpsons model has set a precedent for other companies to follow. Of course, not every business will have a such strong personal connection to the issue, but attitudes are changing. Employers are recognising how crucial it is that they be inclusive – and that applies to ex-prisoners as it does to other underrepresented groups. Inclusivity of course helps recruitment of talent, but there’s also an incentive in terms of brand values and awareness amongst increasingly savvy consumers. CSR is no longer a check box, it can create real value in a market – a happy side effect for businesses brave enough to put strong social values at the heart of what they do.

Business in the Community have recently been campaigning to have the criminal record tick box removed from job application forms – and they’ve found support from many major businesses. It’s an issue which is closely linked to the ‘whole person’ approach that drives wellbeing at work. Are we willing to judge people on their merits, personality and skills? It’s historically been one of the less championed causes for business, but the precedent is there – employing ex-prisoners can make for more inclusive and productive workplaces, and a less divided society.