Skills training in prisons will be designed to help offenders to go directly from jail into jobs under new proposals announced by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary.
Employers will be encouraged to lead and design training based on their own needs under plans outlined in a government green paper. And steps will be taken to ensure colleges and private training bodies are better able to give offenders the skills they need to get a job.
Ms Kelly said: "Opportunities for education and training must lead to skills and qualifications that are meaningful for employers and to real job opportunities. We know that, when ex-offenders are given the right training and opportunities for sustained and satisfying employment, they can be turned away from crime."
Home Office figures reveal that more than half of prisoners are re-convicted within two years of release. It is estimated that re-offenders cost the criminal justice system an average of pound;65,000 up to the point of re-imprisonment, and pound;37,500 for each year in prison. Ms Kelly said: "On top of this, there are often unquantifiable costs to the victims of crime and their communities."
She said the number of prisoners who had gained qualifications in literacy, language and numeracy has increased since 2001 from 25,000 to 63,000. But the quality of learning and skills in prisons is "still too often inadequate", Ms Kelly said.
The green paper, Reducing Re-offending through Skills and Employment, comes ahead of the Government's five-year strategy to cut re-offending and protect the public, due to be published in the new year. It received a cautious welcome from employers and prison reform groups.
The Confederation of British Industry said employers are increasingly willing to employ ex-offenders who want to contribute to society. Sir Digby Jones, the CBI's director-general, said: "The key to successful employer involvement is to provide better education and training in prisons and then support employers and ex-offenders in dealing with the transition to employment and life outside.
"Many companies are already involved in the successful rehabilitation, resettlement and training of offenders. The private and voluntary sectors should be given the opportunity to extend this work throughout the criminal justice system. If rehabilitation and re-integration into society begin only when a prisoner is released, then we can expect continued re-offending."
Steve Taylor, a former offender and director of the charity Forum on Prisoner Education, said he is pleased at the commitment to improving prisoners' education.
"But the Government must not underestimate the mountain it will have to climb to get employers on board and willing to give jobs to ex-offenders,"
"It would be insulting of government to suggest all prisoners will want to be builders or painters and decorators. A large number of prisoners will want to study more academic rather than vocational qualifications, often through distance learning. Higher education must not be lost in this process."
Nacro, the crime reduction charity, also raised concerns. Craig Harris, its director of education, said: "While we support the idea of employment and training initiatives linked to employers and targeting sectors with labour shortages, this is not a realistic option for the majority of offenders because they don't have the skills to compete at this level, and may be far from employable."