Management+: Blue chips go crimebusting

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The Independent Online
In a joint scheme with the courts, the police and the probation service, big British businesses aim to reduce crime by creating new schemes for young offenders. Wendy Wallace reports on the companies that want to give something back to the community.

Leaders of Britain's largest businesses are keen to help reduce crime, according to a survey released this week. A poll by MORI of blue chip companies found that 81 per cent considered crime reduction a task that should be shared with business. Six out of seven captains of industry said they would actively consider developing projects in partnership with criminal justice organisations such as the probation service, police and courts.

Projects most likely to interest business leaders were those that involved providing resources for community service order schemes. Last year, more than 46,000 offenders were sentenced to community service, typically working on environmental schemes or helping the elderly for between 40 and 240 hours. The orders help to reduce overcrowding in the prisons and force criminals - mainly young men - to give something back to the community, under the supervisory eye of the probation service.

Two-thirds of the companies surveyed expressed interest in involvement in such schemes. Other potential forms of help on offer from business included the mentoring of convicted young people by company employees, and the sponsorship of drugs counselling and youth recreation schemes in high crime areas.

The survey - of the UK's top 250 companies by turnover - was commissioned by the probation service, which is keen to develop partnership with business. "We desperately need more help with employment," says George Barrow of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation. "You can counsel people all you like but as employment is the key thing in preventing re-offending we must focus on employability

Only 7 per cent of the companies in the survey said they would be willing to develop policies on the recruitment of ex-offenders as permanent staff. But exposure to the world of work, even under a community service order, can be of crucial importance in making young people employable, says probation officers.

"Just to have an association with business, for people who haven't been to work for a long time, if at all, helps with confidence and contacts. If offenders can realise what work involves, it helps them to catch up with the expectations," Mr Barrow says.

Interestingly, although crime is a problem for small businesses up and down the country, Britain's largest companies told MORI that they were little affected by crime. While 66 per cent cited interest rates as affecting profitability and 59 per cent were worried about exchange-rate fluctuations, only 4 per cent raised crime against the company as a significant commercial issue.

Business leaders said "putting something back into the community" was their motivation for involvement in crime reduction; half admitted that it could also provide good PR for the company.

In Nottingham, at company headquarters, the Boots Company is already working with young offenders in a scheme typical of the kind the probation service would like to see expanded.

Offenders on community service orders work on a recycling project in small groups in a Boots warehouse, sorting and repackaging returned and surplus goods which are then donated to charity. The offenders have taken on tasks ranging from reconditioning children's bicycles to assembling tombola bags and sorting baby clothes.

The scheme benefits the community and the young people, says Pat Dexter, community relations manager at Boots. "They love the idea that what they're doing is going to go directly to needy families. Perhaps for the first time they can see themselves as givers, not takers."

Last year, the Boots Recycling Project gave goods worth pounds 10m to local, national and international charities. The products would otherwise have been bulldozed into landfill, at considerable cost to the company. "We save money on landfill costs and we become environmentally friendly as a result - something valued by both customers and staff," says Alastair Eperon, director of group corporate affairs.

In the five years Boots has been working with the probation service, m ore than 2,500 people on community service orders have worked alongside paid company staff on the recycling scheme. There were initial concerns from some in the company, Pat Dexter admits.

"Our security people weren't wildly enthusiastic about having the workshop on site, but senior management made a positive decision," she says. "But the probation service send very able supervisors and I don't think the problems they anticipated materialised. It is a very positive partnership that we value greatly."

Reducing crime is a priority for Jack Straw, Home Secretary, who has already made clear that the Government will press home parental responsibility in this area. Forthcoming legislation also requires local authorities to meet crime reduction targets or face penalties. The Government's "New Deal" for young unemployed people aims as a by-product to reduce crime.

Businesses which get involved will be one of many partners trying to tackle disaffected and criminal youth. "Crime is a corporate concern, not something that can be left to the criminal justice system alone," says John Hicks, chair of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation. "The big companies recognise that it is in their interests to make a contribution to more stable communities."