Brexit Labour Gap

You may have heard this month that the government plans to use prisoners to plug the post-Brexit labour gap by releasing them on a temporary license. The policy would mean prisoners can pick up work experience and skills whilst incarcerated that will help them find employment after their release.

It is commonly believed that prisoners who find employment after their release are less likely to re-offend. Indeed people with stable employment are less likely to offend in the first place. A decline in reoffending could save the country £15bn a year in police, court and prison costs.

The UK has one of the highest prison populations in the EU – second to Turkey – and overcrowding does lead to a greater risk of institutionalised criminality as rehabilitation becomes a secondary aim to detention.

Other countries do place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and in Holland and Scandinavia prisons are being closed due to a lack of prisoners (they are being converted into flats which is an ironic take on the housing crisis impacting much of Europe). In comparison, the UK has the highest number of life sentences in the EU.

Clearly, a greater emphasis on rehabilitation to reform prisoners is a path well-trodden by our European neighbours. However, how does it tie in with employment law and the post-Brexit labour market?

The first issue is logistical, what industry do most of our EU migrant workers work in? Hospitality, cleaning, health/social care, food production/manufacturing, haulage and construction. These industries do not often dovetail with employing offenders.

Firstly, the skills needed to work in construction, haulage and health/social care often require training and qualifications that most people in prison do not have. Second, for health/social care there is a requirement for a clean DBS check due to working with vulnerable people. Finally, many hospitality businesses might be uneasy about employing offenders as front-of-house staff. That doesn’t leave too many options in the post-Brexit labour shortage.

Next the issue of payment poses a modern slavery risk. All large companies – and this might extend to smaller companies over time – have to publish modern slavery statements as part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The statements are to show that employers are ensuring there is no worker exploitation throughout all stages of their production/supply chain – including abroad. Having prison workers working for free – or very nominal figures – does not tie in with the anti-exploitation purpose of the Act.

However, paying prisoners a full salary when they are supposed to be doing penance for their crimes is an ethical issue many in Britain would not agree with. Likewise, if current staff had to suddenly work with large quantities of convicted felons then this might create grievance issues and requests for different working arrangements. It would also require a large number of risk assessments. If these grievances weren’t handled properly or risk assessments weren’t thorough then this could leave employers liable should any incidents occur? The same might apply if risk assessments were done but staff were assaulted by prison workers anyway.

Companies such as Timpson have shown that employing former prisoners can be beneficial for the company and the employee. However, this policy poses several moral and logistical questions that will require a shift in how the nation views crime, punishment and rehabilitation. At present I cannot imagine anyone working in the hospitality or manufacturing sector who did vote for Brexit did so because they would rather work with convicted felons instead of EU migrants.